Gov. Jerry Brown's pardon of former State Sen. Rod Wright focuses attention on one of our most useless laws, the one imposing residency requirements on state legislators and city council members.
Wright was convicted in 2014 of felony perjury and voting fraud for living outside his Southwest Los Angeles-Inglewood district. Wright had sworn that he lived in a modest dwelling in Inglewood. A jury believed what the district attorney charged, that Wright actually lived in a large home in upscale Baldwin Hills, outside the district. Brown said Wright had lived a worthwhile life since his conviction and deserved a pardon.
That same year, former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife were found guilty of lying about their residence before his race for city council. An appellate court threw out the convictions, saying the trial judge had issued improper jury instructions.
I cheered for Alarcon then just as I did for Wright when he got his pardon last week. The law said they should live in their districts, have a "domicile" within the boundaries. But domicile is too vague of a term for a criminal conviction. I read the law, as related in the Alarcon decision, and couldn't figure it out. Then of course, there is the way city council district boundaries are shifted around during reapportionment to meet the political needs of the lawmakers in charge of drawing the lines.
The argument for the residency requirement is that it assures lawmakers will be responsive to their constituents. If that were true, why are district boundaries moved in such weird, politically motivated ways in reapportionments? A lawmaker's constituents are forever subject to change. The poor constituent doesn't know who to call.
Finally, these cases take up investigatory resources that could be used elsewhere, such as fighting crime and corruption. The appellate court decision in the Alarcon case told a tale of investigators interviewing neighbors, checking out his homes, even questioning workers at his kid's school. It's noteworthy that there are no district residency requirements for members of Congress.
Gov. Brown just signed a bill, introduced by Wright's successor, easing the residency requirements and making it more difficult for prosecutors to go after such cases.
Still, why not just wipe out the residency requirement.
"Not living in the district is fine, as long as people know about it," Joe Matthews wrote on the Fox&Hounds website. Or as UCI law professor Rick Hasen wrote on his Election Law Blog, "The idea that we need to protect voters from carpetbagging outsiders is outdated and patronizing. If voters don’t want the outsider to be the representative, they can vote that way. But does anyone think the quality of Alarcon’s representation of his district depended at all on whether his primary residence was a few miles outside his district? And even if they did, the remedy would be to vote him out of office."