Ousting Wright from California Senate may be awkward task

Ousting Wright from California Senate may be awkward task
State Sen. Roderick D. Wright; the state Senate is under pressure to expel him for felony convictions that involve lying about living in his district, but many other legislators have faced questions about their place of residence. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

SACRAMENTO — The state Senate is under pressure to expel Sen. Roderick D. Wright for felony convictions that involve lying about living in his district when he ran for the upper house. But such a vote might be awkward for some of his colleagues who have faced questions about their own residency.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) raised the issue during a bitter floor debate last week, before a Republican motion to oust Wright was blocked by his fellow Democrats and sent to a committee to languish until the lawmaker's May 16 sentencing.

"By my calculation, over a quarter of members in the minority party on this floor today have had their own residency status questioned at the time that they filed for office," Steinberg declared.

In fact, questions have been raised for years about the residency of legislators from both parties and in both houses, including five currently in office.


The state Constitution says those running for the Legislature must live in the district they seek to represent for at least a year before the election. Wright believes he is the only state legislator convicted of violating that law, and officials in both houses say they are not aware of any other cases.

Often, residency questions are raised by a political rival. "Allegations of residency violations are rife, of course, in the course of campaigning," said Greg Schmidt, secretary of the Senate.

And district attorneys differ in their taste for such cases; some prosecute, some don't. Judges also differ.

A Superior Court judge in Sacramento dismissed a residency case against Republican Sen. Mimi Walters in 2012, saying the Legislature, not the courts, has jurisdiction to decide the qualifications of those running for a Senate or Assembly seat.

A 2012 contestant for Walters' seat, attorney Steve Young, filed a lawsuit alleging that the lawmaker lived in a Laguna Niguel mansion outside her newly drawn 37th Senate district, and not in a 570-square-foot Irvine apartment she rented inside the district.

Walters was registered to vote at the Irvine address until three weeks ago, although voter registration and other state records show that another tenant moved into the apartment in August 2013. The senator's husband, David Walters, and her children are registered to vote at the 14,000-square-foot home in Laguna Niguel.

On Friday, Walters filed papers to run for Congress, listing the Laguna Niguel property as her residence. She registered to vote there Feb. 10, according to the Orange County registrar of voters office.

Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill of Modesto faced a legal challenge in 2010 when he ran for his seat. An opposing candidate, attorney Heidi Fuller, filed a lawsuit saying Berryhill failed to meet residency requirements.

Berryhill had rented a residence in what was then the 14th Senate district about six months before the June primary.

In that case, a Superior Court judge found the one-year residency requirement unconstitutional. A state Court of Appeal later held that courts couldn't hear the case, that only the Legislature can determine the qualifications of a candidate.

Berryhill campaign spokesman Steve Presson said the candidate complied with the law. "The senator continues to live in the district," Presson said.

Court rulings and legal opinions have given lawmakers reason to believe they don't have to stay in their districts after election day. Republican Sen. Ted Gaines is one.

He volunteered to constituents in his December newsletter that he was moving out of a home in Rocklin that he rented in his 1st Senate District before he ran for office. He was returning to the home he had long shared with his wife, Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, in nearby Roseville, which is outside his district.

"My wife Beth and I recently made the decision to temporarily move back into our longtime home in Roseville, right outside the Senate district's line," he told The Times. "There will be no trouble serving the constituents of the 1st Senate District while we look for the best long-term place to continue raising our family."

Before his move, Gaines consulted with the Legislative Counsel's Office.

"We conclude that a member of the Legislature is not required to continuously reside in the legislative district he or she represents for the entirety of his or her term," wrote Daniel S. Vandekoolwyk, deputy legislative counsel, in a Dec. 20, 2013, advice letter to Gaines.

Members of the Assembly have had address troubles as well.

The Sacramento County district attorney's office, for example, recently asked the secretary of state to look into the residency of Assemblyman Richard Pan (D-Sacramento). The Sacramento Bee had reported he was often found on nights and weekends at a home outside his district.

Prosecutors closed the case last month, after the state did not come up with evidence of a violation.

In Wright's case, the lawmaker was convicted of falsely declaring an Inglewood address in papers signed under penalty of perjury when he ran for the Senate. Prosecutors said evidence showed he actually lived in upscale Baldwin Hills, more than a mile outside the district he sought to represent.

"He stood before a court and a jury and they made a determination that he is guilty," said Gaines, adding that he would have no trouble voting to expel Wright.

"I'm comfortable with my situation as to my residency," Gaines said.

Steinberg, invoking the Bible during the floor debate, cautioned against a rush to expel Wright before his conviction is finalized by a judge.

"Let he who is without sin among you first cast the stone," Steinberg said.