TUPELO • The state’s highest court is poised to settle lingering legal questions about residency requirements for municipal offices, potentially bringing an unusually chaotic series of election challenges to a close with party primary elections right on the horizon.
Special Circuit Judge Jeff Weill on Wednesday, March 17 ordered that Zach Grady be placed on the ballot as a Republican candidate in Ward 3 for D’Iberville City Council, where he will oppose incumbent Craig “Boots” Diaz.
But Diaz, the incumbent candidate running for re-election, on Monday filed a notice of appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court saying that the trial judge overstepped his authority and erred in his ruling.
“I think Judge Weill was wrong in his interpretation of the law,” said Oliver Diaz, an attorney representing Craig Diaz, his brother, in the appeal.
Diaz, a former supreme court justice, said that while the court may have some sway over which cases it decides to hear, any time an election challenge of this type is appealed to the high court, it’s treated as an expedited case and placed at the top of the trial docket, meaning the court rule on the case relatively soon.
Beverly Kraft, the public information officer for the administrative office of the courts, said that “appeals of this sort are not discretionary by certiorari” meaning that the Supreme Court will hear the case.
According to state law, when a candidate appeals an election challenge to the Supreme Court, the ruling of the lower court will be suspended and the appeal shall be “immediately docketed” in the Supreme Court.
As of Monday afternoon, the Court has not submitted any type of response to Diaz’s request for appeal or docketed the appeal on its website.
The high court’s ruling could have implications for local elections throughout the state including election challenges in Pass Christian and Hattiesburg and a potential election challenge in Oxford.
The main epicenter of legal uncertainty involving the election challenges is an opinion from the office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch, which said that a 2019 election law requires candidates for municipal office to live in the ward they’re wishing to represent as well as the municipality for two years.
Weill in his ruling sharply criticized the recent opinion from Fitch’s office as “not based in logic or on the law.”
Weill said that the 2019 residency law exempted its application in cases where “the qualifications for an elected office include a specific residency requirement.” The law for council-manager forms of government does, in fact, contain a residency requirement, though not a two-year residency requirement.
Weill went further, finding that the “plain” meaning of the new residency requirement imposed in 2019 only requires that municipal candidates reside somewhere within their city for two years prior to an election, not residency for two years within any given ward.
He criticized the contrary opinion offered by Fitch’s office as improperly relying upon videotaped legislative debate as its “only legal basis” and failing to offer “any analysis of the specific text at issue.”
“The Court is less concerned about the timing of the Attorney General’s opinion near the end of the qualification period after hundreds of candidates had already qualified than the Attorney General’s misinterpretation” of the new residency requirements, Weill wrote in his Wednesday order.
Two election challenges in Hattiesburg and one challenge in Pass Christian are still pending in circuit court.