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COA voids Terre Haute's 2007 mayoral election

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The man elected Terre Haute's mayor was ineligible because of federal law to become a candidate or assume office, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today on an issue of first impression. As a result, a special election is needed to fill the vacancy.

In a divided 2-1 decision in Kevin D. Burke v. Duke Bennett, No. 84A01-0801-CV-2, the majority in a 59-page opinion reversed a lower court ruling that had held mayoral candidate Duke Bennett could take office as mayor despite the applicability of federal law questioning his eligibility.

In November 2007, Bennett beat incumbent Kevin Burke for mayor. Burke then challenged his newly elected opponent based on the Hatch Act, which limits political activity of employees of some non-profit groups that receive federal funding. Before taking office Jan. 1, Bennett was the operations director for Hamilton Center Inc., which receives federal funding for its Early Head Start program. The two have been battling over the mayoral post since late last year when Vigo Circuit Judge David Bolk ruled that Bennett is subject to the Hatch Act but that state law didn't prevent him from taking office.

A Court of Appeals majority of authoring Judge Elaine Brown and Judge Carr Darden disagreed, finding Bennett was subject to what's known as the Little Hatch Act because he was an "officer or employee" at the Hamilton Center and because his principal employment was in connection with an activity financed in whole or in part by U.S. loans or grants. That meant that the applicability of that federal law disqualified Bennett from becoming a partisan candidate for mayor or assuming office, the court wrote.

"Because Burke has standing to contest the election and Bennett is ineligible, we conclude that a vacancy exists," she wrote. "In light of this conclusion, we direct the parties' attention to Ind. Code Sections 3-10-8, which govern special elections."

Judge Edward Najam dissented in his own 13-page opinion, writing that Indiana Supreme Court caselaw in Oviatt v. Behme, 238 Ind. 69, 147 N.E. 2d 897 (1958) is controlling and holds that an action can only be maintained under state statute if the losing candidate can demonstrate that voters knew of the winning candidate's ineligibility at the time of the election. That wasn't the case here and the trial court correctly ruled on that in favor of Bennett, Judge Najam wrote.

"The analytical flaw in the majority opinion is that it relies on Bennett's ineligibility rather than on the determination that, as a matter of law, Burke cannot prevail in his post-election contest," he wrote. "The majority is correct in holding that, given Oviatt, it is incumbent upon candidates to have issues of eligibility brought to the voters' attention prior to the election. But that is precisely why I am obliged to dissent from the majority opinion. In its operation and effect, the rule in Oviatt is akin to a rule of estoppel. The majority opinion nullifies the operation and effect of Oviatt."

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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