Whether an elected official satisfies a “residency” requirement can often be a tricky determination for courts to make. In Datt v. Schroer (Mo. App. E.D. Oct. 20, 2020), the Missouri Court of Appeals was recently presented with one such case. The court rejected an attempt to remove Missouri House Representative Schroer from the ballot in the November 2020 election over the residency requirement in the Missouri Constitution. Representatives in the Missouri House are required by Article III, Section 4 of the Missouri Constitution to be “twenty-four years of age, and next before the day of his election shall have been a qualified voter for two years and a resident of the county or district which he is chosen to represent for one year….” Representative Schroer’s opponent in the November election filed a petition seeking to remove him from the November ballot. His opponent claimed that Representative Schroer was no longer a resident of the district he sought to represent, in violation of Article III, Section 4.
Representative Schroer was first elected in 2016. He had lived in his district with his family since 2013. However, prior to the 2020 election, he and his family sold their house in the district and purchased a house located approximately fifteen minutes outside the district. Representative Schroer was a co-borrower on the loan to purchase the home and checked the box next to his name indicating he intended to occupy the house as his primary residence (he testified that he believed the box must be checked if either borrower intended the house to be his or her primary residence). However, according to Representative Schroer, while his family intended for their primary residence to be at the new house outside the district, he did not intend for it to be his primary residence. Instead, Representative Schroer entered into a lease agreement to rent “space” in a family friend’s house within the district for his primary residence. The lease on that space was set to expire at what would be the end of his term if he were reelected in 2020. He listed the in-district space as his residence on his candidate committee form, campaign bank account, driver’s license, voter registration card, and his court account. However, he listed the out-of-district house as his address on a car loan application and car insurance policy. He testified that he spends time at both homes but sleeps at the rental space in the district.
The trial court held that Representative Schroer satisfied the residency requirement of the Constitution. In reviewing that decision, the Court of Appeals noted that the question of residency is “largely a matter of intention” and that courts must pay close attention to all of the acts and statements of the person and the circumstances of the case. Residency is considered the place where a person has “his true, fixed and permanent home and principal establishment” to which he “has the intention of returning.” A person can only have one place of residence. While the location where one’s family resides is a “significant” fact, it is not the only relevant fact. The court reasoned that if there is conflicting evidence, there is a presumption that the “original” location remains the location of residency. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals held that because there were conflicting facts in this case, and the trial court specifically found Representative Schroer’s testimony to be credible, the conflicting facts meant that there was a presumption that Schroer’s original location of residence (in the district) remained his place of residence. The court upheld the trial court’s determination that Representative Schroer should remain on the ballot.