PHILADELPHIA -- Nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis was ordered back on the ballot in a state Senate election by a federal appeals court Tuesday in possibly the final word over whether the celebrity political newcomer would meet a four-year residency requirement for state senators.
A 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel put Lewis, a Democrat, back on the ballot with a 2-1 ruling issued less than five hours after hearing arguments. The court said a full opinion would be filed later.
But after months of legal hair-splitting on exactly when Lewis became a New Jersey resident, the court seemed to indicate that issue was not the heart of the case. Instead, the court said, "the state has failed to demonstrate a compelling state interest" for leaving Lewis off the ballot.
Judges Thomas Vanaskie and Thomas Ambro, who voted to put Lewis back on the ballot, were appointed by Democrats. Judge Anthony Scirica, who dissented, is a Republican appointee.
The decision indicated the majority agreed with Lewis' lawyer, who said the reasons for the residency requirement were to ensure that a candidate knows the local issues and the voters know the candidate. The lawyer, William Tambussi, said neither was a problem in the case of Lewis, who grew up in New Jersey.
Attorney Mark Sheridan, representing Burlington County Republicans who sought to keep Lewis off the ballot, said Tuesday his clients would appeal the latest ruling. He said he would have to act quickly and choose to appeal to the entire 3rd Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court, neither of which agrees to take on most of the appeals made to it.
"I think the court absolutely got it wrong," he said. "They applied the wrong standard."
Chris Russell, the campaign consultant for the county's GOP Committee, also blasted the decision.
"This was a miscarriage of justice and another example of why Americans are losing faith in government institutions that are supposed to treat everyone equally," Russell said. "By allowing Mr. Lewis on the ballot, two of the three appellate judges today ignored longstanding legal precedent and tossed aside New Jersey's constitution. Their decision effectively eliminates residency requirements to run for office in order to allow a wealthy celebrity on the ballot."
Lewis' lawyer, though, said the court got it right.
"Today's decision puts this matter with the voters of the 8th Legislative District, where it rightfully belongs," Tambussi said. "We are pleased that the voters now have a meaningful choice."
Lewis is running as a Democrat in a reliably Republican district, challenging Republican incumbent Sen. Dawn Addiego.
Tuesday night, Republican Gov. Chris Christie wished Lewis "good luck" on Townsquare Media's "Ask the Governor" program on radio station New Jersey 101.5.
"We'll see what happens," Christie said, adding that he'll be campaigning for legislative candidates, including Addiego.
It was Christie's running mate and lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, in her capacity as secretary of state, who ruled Lewis was in violation of a state constitution provision that requires state senators to live in the state for four years.
Since then, state courts and the U.S. District court have sided with her. The 3rd Circuit put Lewis back on the ballot for the primary in June and restored him again Tuesday for the general election on Nov. 8.
In a case that has featured intricate legal arguments, the four-year threshold was tricky. State officials say a candidate has to live in the state from four years before the election -- not the swearing-in date. For Lewis, that difference of two months may have made a difference.
The 50-year-old Lewis grew up in southern New Jersey, went to college in Texas and settled in California. In 1984, he moved from track star to celebrity when he won four gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Over the next 12 years, he collected five more golds in the Olympics. He bought homes in New Jersey in 2005 and 2007 and started coaching track at his alma mater, Willingboro High School, in 2007. But, he continued to vote in California through 2009 and registered to vote in New Jersey only this year.
Lewis was planning a news conference for Wednesday.