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Voters might care where Mosby's challengers live; the courts probably wont

Attorneys Ivan Bates and Thiru Vignarajah are hardly the first candidates for political office in Maryland to be sued over residency requirements. There’s a long history of case law on the question of what it means to “reside” in a particular jurisdiction, as the Maryland Constitution requires candidates for state’s attorney to do for two years before the election. The gist of the case law, which dates back to at least 1890 and has been consistent since at least the 1950s, is that it doesn’t matter where you sleep most of the time, where you keep a toothbrush, where you get your mail or even what house you list as a primary residence for tax purposes. Where you vote doesn’t even necessarily make a difference. What matters is what you intend to be your place of domicile, and attempting to prove that candidates live somewhere other than where they say has generally proven a fruitless exercise.

That proved to be the case with Mr. Vignarajah — a judge promptly threw out the challenge to his residency Tuesday morning — and it probably will be fore Mr. Bates, too. Both are challenging Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in the Democratic primary. Mr. Bates says he first moved to Baltimore City in 1995 and has maintained that as his domicile ever since, notwithstanding his purchase of a home in Howard County in 2012 or a comment printed in The Sun that he moved back to the city in 2017, to a new home in Locust Point that he bought in 2016. And Mr. Vignarajah has owned a condo in Federal Hill for more than a decade and considers it his place of domicile notwithstanding property records and traffic tickets that the person suing him claimed prove he has actually resided in Howard County since 2010.

The Court of Appeals last took up a question like this in 1998, when a challenger to then-state Sen. Clarence Blount claimed he didn’t live in Baltimore City’s 41st Legislative District but rather in a Pikesville condo. The plaintiff in that case, Frank Boston Jr., had some compelling arguments. Blount admitted to spending “90 percent” of his nights at the Pikesville condo and only sleeping at the Copley Road apartment in his district occasionally. And no wonder; the Pikesville condo had virtually all of his clothes and furniture, not to mention his wife. The Copley Road apartment had no phone. His stepson lived there, and Blount had a room with a futon and a TV, a few articles of clothing and no linens. (Though to be fair, “The court further found that ‘Mrs. Blount has planted some plants and flowers in front of the [Copley Road] premises and Senator Blount has watered them on occasion.’”)

The Circuit Court ruled against Blount, concluding that his efforts to maintain a domicile in Baltimore City were made only for political purposes, but the Court of Appeals reversed the decision. Even if his insistence that his residence was in the 41st District was solely a matter of political expediency, that didn’t matter, the state’s high court ruled. If anything, that counted in his favor.

The precedents are by no means limited to Blount’s case. Theodore McKeldin ran for Baltimore mayor while serving as governor and obeying the state Constitution’s requirement that “The Governor shall reside at the seat of government,” i.e., Annapolis. Former City Councilwoman Rikki Spector openly admitted to living with her companion in an Inner Harbor condo, not at her home in the 5th Council District, but dismissed questions about it as a private matter separate from her public role. (She at one point joked that she would make sure her next boyfriend lived in the 5th District.) Catherine Curran O’Malley continued to serve as a district court judge as she and her husband lived in Government House while he was governor, even after they sold their house in the city. It was always their intent to return to Baltimore (which they did), so under Maryland court precedents, the fact that they no longer owned property there and actually lived in Annapolis didn’t matter. So far as Maryland law was concerned, they never established a new domicile.

Absurd though it may seem, the case law on residency in Maryland reflects the reality that the question is more political than legal. Voters either believe a candidate can effectively represent them, or they don’t, and that has little to do with where they sleep at night. A candidate’s authenticity is a crucial question in every election, and particularly in this one, given how viscerally many city residents feel about Ms. Mosby — either for good or bad — as a result of the tumultuous four years in which she has served. Whether Ms. Mosby or one of her challengers can best reconcile Baltimoreans conflicted feelings about the criminal justice system may well be the crucial issue in this election, and it would have been even if Messrs. Bates and Vignarajah had never owned property in Howard County.

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