by Max Brantley
A Pulaski circuit judge has ruled Bill Halter is qualified to run for lieutenant governor. A lawsuit by a Bismarck man, represented by lawyers who have contributed money to opponent Mike Hathorn, had argued that Halter didn't meet the constitution's seven-year residency requirement.
Judge Mary Spencer McGowan ruled that Halter had been a continuous resident of Arkansas and had never changed, or intended to change, his residence, though he has lived out of state for much of the last 20 years, save a couple of years working for the Clinton presidential campaign when it was based in Little Rock.
The judge’s decision noted that Halter had been registered to vote in Arkansas continuously since his 18th birthday, has always had an Arkansas driver’s license, never changed his permanent mailing address from his parents’ North Little Rock home until he moved back to Arkansas in 2005, paid income taxes in Arkansas, “never intended to abandon Arkansas as his permanent residence” and purchased property in Arkansas in 2004.
The judge concluded that, as a matter of law, the Constitutional seven-year residency provision “does not contain the phrase, ‘next preceding his election …” This is a critical point because, until the current residency requirement was adopted in the 1874 charter, the constitution explicitly said that the residency requirement covered the period immediately preceding the election. She concluded that the omission of those words in the 1874 document was deliberate. By that interpretation, the judge said Halter satisfied the residency requirement by his continuous 19 years in Arkansas from 1960 to 1979 alone.
She also said:
“If the framers of the Arkansas Constitution had wanted to require seven years’ residency immediately before the election as a qualification, they could have done so, and they did not.
“Therefore, the seven-year residency requirement does not need to be met immediately preceding the election.”
She further note the constitutional provision that says “absence on business of the state or of the United States… shall not cause a forfeiture of residence once obtained.” Halter served a number of years in federal jobs, including as a top Social Security official.
The judge said, "This court concludes at the outset that, considering all of the facts and circumstances indicated by the above Findings of Fact, that the plaintiff has not met the burden of demonstrating that the defendant, Bill Halter, ever changed residency from Arkansas to another state."
The judge held that residency was a matter of intent more than place of residence. The plaintiffs, she said, did not prove that Halter had changed residency from Arkansas and, indeed, Halter had demonstrated many ways in which he'd maintained connections to Arkansas.
The Republican Party had been watching this case closely and now can take a deep breath. Its gubernatorial candidate, Asa Hutchinson, has lived a cumulative seven years in Arkansas, but not the last seven years. He was registered to vote in Virginia for about three years, while working in the Bush administration and then as a lobbyist. He transferred his voter registration back to Arkansas last year.
We're advised the plaintiff will appeal. Halter had a news conference shortly after the decision, presumably to do some deserved crowing and to decry the tactics of opponents. He sees the suit as primarily an effort to "confuse" people about him and give cause to question his candidacy, widely believed to have broken out of the pack on the strength of an expensive TV campaign fueled heavily by Halter's own money.
This was a case we thought he'd win, just as we think Asa Hutchinson would win a case challenging his residency. As Halter's attorney noted, the plaintiff's argument would have disqualified Bill Clinton in his first election.