Baltimore judge to decide whether Bates qualifies to challenge Mosby in state's attorney race

A Baltimore circuit judge is to decide Friday whether longtime defense attorney Ivan Bates meets a two-year residency requirement to run for city state’s attorney in June.

Bates’ attorneys and those of his political rival, Thiru Vignarajah, argued the matter for hours Thursday, presenting tax and utility bills, deeds, car registration, voting records and other documents as they sought to prove which of Bates’ houses serves as his legal home and for how long.

To qualify for the ballot, a candidate must have lived continuously in Baltimore since November 2016.

Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill said he will rule Friday on the matter. His decision could reshape the contentious, three-way race to be the the city’s top prosecutor. Bates and Vignarajah are both seeking to unseat incumbent Marilyn Mosby. All are running as Democrats, and because there is no Republican candidate in the race, it will be decided by the June 26 primary election.

Bates says he moved in early 2016 into a newly built rowhome in the Locust Point neighborhood of South Baltimore. Vignarajah, however, says records show Bates didn’t move in until last year.

The morning began with a tense encounter between the rivals. Vignarajah greeted Bates and tried to shake his hand.

“You’re not going to send people to my house and scare my family and then try and shake my hand,” Bates told him. “Don’t send people to my house.”

Outside the courtroom, Bates declined to say what happened. Vignarajah did not comment, but a spokesman for his campaign provided a written statement later.

“No one went to Mr. Bates’s home,” spokesman Matt Krimsky said. “Legal disputes demand civility, in and out of the courtroom.”

Both candidates found themselves defending their residency qualifications this week in dueling lawsuits. Local activist Christopher Comeau sued Vignarajah, but the judge dismissed that lawsuit Tuesday.

Kristien Miller, a donor to Vignarajah’s campaign, sued Bates.

The plaintiffs tried to compel Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton to testify about an interview Fenton had with Bates a year ago. But an attorney for The Sun appeared in court Thursday and argued that Fenton was protected under laws that shield journalists from being forced to testify about their news gathering. The judge agreed and quashed the subpoena.

“Whatever marginal value Mr. Fenton’s testimony might provide, it is marginal,” Fletcher-Hill said, “and does not override the protection to the news media.”

According to Fenton’s article, Bates told The Sun last year that he had moved back into the city in early 2017. Bates says he was misquoted. The Sun stands by its reporting.

The lawsuit also hinged on a $5 water bill at Bates’ house in Locust Point. Bates’ attorneys called his neighbor into court to explain the small amount.

“Our water bills were covered by the homeowners association, so it was baked into that cost,” the neighbor, Connor Swegle, told the court. “I have not paid a water bill directly to the city.”

Most of the hearing was spent with attorneys examining the property records, tax bills, voting records and deeds.

Vignarajah told the court the records show Bates moved in four months too late.

“It may have been an honest mistake,” Vignarajah said. “The plaintiff takes no pleasure in making a dispute of this.”

Bates told the court he moved to a rowhouse in Reservoir Hill in 1997. Then he bought a house in Howard County in 2012 — a gift for his parents, he said. He said he moved his parents up from Virginia and lived with them, his new wife and stepdaughter in the home until 2016. Early that same year, Bates said, he moved to Locust Point. And he changed his address on his driver’s license and voting registration to reflect the Locust Point home, his attorney said.

Bates was previously sued over his residency qualifications by another state’s attorney candidate, Charles “Chad” Curlett, who dropped out of the race. Curlett said he now believes Bates meets the requirements.

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