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Convoluted residency law makes no sense

Convoluted residency law makes no sense
State Sen. Roderick D. Wright was sentenced to 90 days in jail on felony perjury and voting fraud charges. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

To steal from Charles Dickens, "The law is an ass."

A jackass, he meant. "An idiot."

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In his novel "Oliver Twist," Dickens' character Mr. Bumble is referring to a law that presumes his wife always follows orders from him.

Here, I'm referring to a law that requires a candidate for the state Legislature to live in the district he wants to represent.

Never mind that once elected, he can move outside the district.

Also, never mind that for at least seven months of a year, while the Legislature is in session, he'll be living more than half his time far outside the district, in Sacramento.

And never mind that the law is more complicated than simply requiring a lawmaker to live among the people he represents. That's just the media shorthand version. It does presumably represent the law's original intent. But the law also is cluttered with a lot of gobbledygook, like the word "domicile."

Here's a short synopsis: The California Constitution requires a legislative candidate to be "an elector" — a voter — and "a resident of the legislative district for one year." The one-year requirement has been ruled invalid. A voting "residence" is defined in law as "a person's domicile" where he "has the intention of remaining [and if he leaves] the intention of returning."

The law "is about as clear as mud," state Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood) told me months ago after he was nailed by it.

Never mind further that candidates for Congress don't need to reside in their districts.

Moreover, the state law is a bit ambiguous. The California Constitution seems to grant final say to the Legislature. It decrees: "Each house shall judge the qualifications and elections of its members." It also gives each house the power to expel any member.

And lastly, never mind that the state law is not uniformly enforced throughout California. Most district attorneys essentially ignore it and choose, instead, to chase real criminals: murderers, rapists, robbers, gangbangers and wife beaters.

Only in Los Angeles County — and just recently — do prosecutors also track down politicians deemed to lie about where they live.

I figure it's seen as low-hanging fruit, an easy opportunity to burnish the conviction record. Any politician, after all, is automatically presumed by a jury to be guilty once he walks into a courtroom — especially if, like Wright, he's wearing a fancy suit and drives a Maserati.

Last week, Wright, 62, was sentenced to 90 days in county jail, three years' probation and 1,500 hours of community service — and admonished he could never hold public office again.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told Wright that his arguments in court "didn't pass the smell test" and accused him of "arrogance" in trying to skirt the law.

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Arrogance is a malady of many politicians, but it doesn't ordinarily warrant jail time, especially when there aren't enough cells to hold real crooks.

Actually, there's speculation that Wright will wind up serving little or no time because of severe jail crowding, his previous clean record and the nonviolent nature of his offense.

Wright was convicted in January on eight felony counts of voting fraud and perjury for lying about living in his district when he ran for the Senate in 2008. Wright claimed to be living in a rented room of an Inglewood house he had owned for 37 years and where he had once resided. But he really was living outside his district in Baldwin Hills.

Wright claimed he wasn't lying; he had just misinterpreted the law.

But, come on, he knew the law's intent. He may have been kidding himself, but no jury was going to buy it The only question for me is whether the crime rose to the level of a felony and warranted incarceration. And the answer is no way.

And I say this as someone who often disagreed with Wright's legislative positions, especially his zealousness against gun control. He was the gun lobby's dream Democrat.

Take away his office? Sure. Shove him into community service? Fine. But incarcerate him as a felon? That's a waste of taxpayer money and an injustice.

Especially since there are several other legislators — Democrats and Republicans — who could face similar prosecutions if their D.A.s chose.

All these districts after all — 120 of them — get shifted around every 10 years following each national census. What's a lawmaker supposed to do? Sell his home if it's suddenly outside the redrawn district? Or do what most always have: rent an apartment inside the new district, but keep living with the family in the real home?

"Let he who is without sin among you first cast the stone," Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) admonished Republicans who were grandstanding about Wright and demanding he be ousted after his conviction.

In truth, Wright probably should have been booted or resigned. Instead, he was suspended with pay.

Steinberg pushed through a proposed constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, will allow the Legislature to suspend a lawmaker without pay. It will be on the June 2016 primary ballot. It would have been on this November's ballot if the Assembly hadn't sat on it for weeks.

The word is that Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers didn't want any negative reminders of the Legislature on the ballot as voters cast ballots on the politicians' proposals for a water bond and "rainy day" reserve.

Meanwhile, the current convoluted residency law needs to be dumped or clarified. For starters, delete the word "domicile."

The law is dumber than a donkey — truly asinine.

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