Carl Lewis' NJ Senate candidacy continues to be mired in confusion and a continuous string of court challenges.
A panel of three federal judges indicated Tuesday they were having second thoughts about their ruling last week that Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist who has had a bumpy entry into New Jersey politics, was eligible to be on the ballot for a state Senate seat.
The same three judges from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked for additional arguments, posed more questions and promised a new ruling soon in the complicated saga. With the election seven weeks away and ballots to be printed any day, there could be a lot of activity in the case, and the race, in short order.
Lewis, a Democrat, is trying to run in the 8th Legislative District, a Republican stronghold in New Jersey's outer Philadelphia suburbs. If he stays on the ballot, he'll face Republican incumbent Dawn Addiego.
New Jersey Secretary of State Kim Guadagno, a Republican who was also elected lieutenant governor as Gov. Chris Christie's running mate, says she removed Lewis from the ballot under a residency provision that's been in the state constitution since 1844. But Lewis and his supporters say he's been singled out for political reasons.
A week ago, the judges had the most challenging questions for the state assistant attorney general who was defending Guadagno's decision. Tuesday, it was Lewis' lawyer Bill Tambussi who got the most extensive grilling.
Lewis, 50, grew up in Willingboro and became an international star when he won four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He went to college in Texas and settled in California. He bought homes in southern New Jersey in 2005 and 2007, but continued to pay taxes in California and voted there through 2009.
Judge Thomas Ambro observed to Tambussi: “If it wasn't for the fact that he voted in California, you might not be here.”
“We would not be here,” Tambussi responded.
“The more you look at it,” the judge said as Lewis looked on, “the more concern I have.”
After last week's ruling, Burlington County Republicans who intervened in the case asked for the entire 3rd Circuit to take up an appeal.
Instead, only the judges who made the initial ruling -- and never issued a complete opinion -- did so.
A full-court review is unusual, and the court's action this week is even rarer. But the veteran election lawyers in the case said almost everything about the saga was different from anything they had seen before.
The argument Tuesday wasn't so much about the facts of where Lewis was a citizen and where he was living -- though those issues came up.
Instead, it focused on the finer legal point of what kind of analysis the judges should use to evaluate whether the residency requirement violates Lewis' constitutional right to equal protection under the law: strict scrutiny or the rational basis.
“I'll make it really simple,” Mark Sheridan, a Republican lawyer, said after the hearing. “Strict scrutiny, we lose. Rational basis, we win.”
The case is time sensitive, though it's before a federal court, a deliberative sort of place where urgency does not always matter. The judges said they were aware of practical deadlines for the election.
The ballot-printing deadline was Monday, though county clerk's offices were holding off, at least for a few days.
Tambussi said it wouldn't be fair to voters to oust Lewis so late in the election because the Democrats might not be able to find and nominate a new candidate in time -- and even if they can, it could mean they would have to pay to reprint ballots.
Sheridan pointed out that candidates have been changed later than this. In 2002, New Jersey Democrats switched U.S. Senate candidates 29 days before the election.
But back then, the state did not have early voting by mail like it does now.