INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Supreme Court delivered a victory to Republicans on Thursday, ruling that Democrats waited too long to challenge the 2010 candidacy of the state's former Republican elections chief and clearing the way for Gov. Mitch Daniels to choose a replacement.
In a unanimous decision, the court overturned a Marion County judge's decision ordering the state recount commission to certify the runner-up, Democrat Vop Osili, as Indiana's secretary of state. Republican Charlie White, who won the race, was removed from office after he was convicted of felony voter fraud and perjury charges last month.
The ruling clears the way for Daniels to appoint White's replacement to the politically powerful office. Daniels, in a statement, said he would act promptly to fill the post. He named White's chief deputy, Jerry Bonnet, interim secretary of state after White's February conviction.
"The Supreme Court's resolution of this case brings finality to a difficult matter with many troublesome aspects. This ends a sad, sad chapter and I look forward to working with the new officeholder in restoring the public's confidence in the Office of Secretary of State," Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement. Zoeller's office represented the recount commission in the case.
White was convicted of listing his ex-wife's address instead of his own when he registered to vote in the May 2010 primary. Democrats said he did this because he didn't want to give up his Fishers Town Council salary, which he would have had to do because he had moved out of the district he was elected to represent. White was sentenced Feb. 23 to one year of home detention.
In a separate challenge before the recount commission and later a civil court, Democrats argued that White's candidacy was invalid because he was improperly registered to vote. They said his recent conviction on six felony charges proved their point.
But the justices said White was properly registered by the time the challenge was filed after the election, and that the two cases had nothing to do with each other. The issue of White's voter registration address was raised before the election by a private citizen, and there was no reason the Democrats couldn't also have raised the issue before voters went to the polls, Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard wrote in the 14-page opinion.
"Our conclusion is that the Code places a burden on political campaigns to investigate and vet their opposition before the pre-election time limitations expire, but that is better than the alternative: that a challenger might ignore a known (or knowable) disqualification challenge before the election, wait to see who won at the polls, and then seek to set aside the results of the democratic process." Shepard wrote.
The court said voters likely were aware of the concerns over White's voter registration at the time of the election, and it would not set aside their will. White won by about 300,000 votes.
"This court has always been wary of overturning the will of the voters who have freely and willingly cast their ballots," the ruling said. Three of the justices were appointed by Republican governors, and two by Democrats.
State Chairman Dan Parker said Democrats were disappointed by the ruling and still believed White's candidacy was illegitimate.
"It's unfortunate that instead of having someone in that office who stood before Indiana voters for an election, Hoosiers are going to have a Secretary of State appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels," Parker said in a statement.
"We hope that person respects the integrity of the office and the elections process and will work with both parties to make sure that every Hoosier with the ability to vote can do so in a fair and open manner," he added.
Osili told The Associated Press that he hoped that whoever was appointed secretary of state would work with officials to make it easier for voters to comply with Indiana's voter ID law.
"The most important thing is that whoever is appointed to fill that slot has his or her highest priority to make sure that anyone who is legally able to vote in Indiana is able to vote," Osili said. "Nothing should be easier than being able to vote."
Indiana Republican Party State Chairman Eric Holcomb expressed relief in a statement and praised the court's decision.
"I commend the Indiana Supreme Court for its well thought out and considered decision in this matter. It is a far cry from the judicial activism used to try and overturn an election at the behest of Chairman Dan Parker and the Indiana Democratic Party," Holcomb said.