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State high court asked to overturn residency ruling

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A former legislator kicked off the ballot for living outside the district she wants to represent is warning the state Supreme Court of “absolute chaos” at the Legislature if the decision stands.

Idalia Lechuga-Tena

Former Rep. Idalia Lechuga-Tena, D-Albuquerque, is asking New Mexico’s highest court to rule that she meets the residency requirements for House District 21, even though she hasn’t lived there for a year.

Lechuga-Tena – who wants to run against Democratic incumbent Debbie Sariñana – compares her situation to that of legislators who leave their home districts for a month or two each year to rent a place in Santa Fe during legislative sessions.

Lechuga-Tena argues that her own absence from the district is similar – because she always planned to return to the home she owns there. It’s also where she’s registered to vote.

“If the District Court’s decision is upheld, it will cause absolute chaos in the New Mexico Legislature,” Lechuga-Tena’s argues in her appeal.

Most legislators aren’t “physically present at the residence indicated on their voter registration cards” during the session, she argues, raising the prospect that election proclamations could be issued when lawmakers are away from home and therefore not actually in their district on the required date.

District Judge Nancy Franchini determined last week that Lechuga-Tena wasn’t qualified to run as a candidate in House District 21 because she hadn’t actually lived there for a year.

In particular, Lechuga-Tena, by her own admission, lived outside the district on Jan. 29 – the day Gov. Susana Martinez issued a proclamation setting the June 5 primary election.

Intent to return to the district isn’t enough to establish residency, the judge ruled.

“Physical presence absolutely is required,” Franchini said last week as she ruled from the beanch.

Debbie Sarinana

Her decision came after a three-hour hearing in which Sariñana’s attorneys called witnesses – even the tenant who rents Lechuga-Tena’s home – who testified that the former representative hadn’t been living there this year.

Lechuga-Tena acknowledges that she has been renting the home to another family for about a year and living outside the district. But she said she is preparing to move back in next week.

Sariñana defeated Lechuga-Tena two years ago to win the House seat, which covers much of the International District in Albuquerque.

“Constituents should be neighbors and share a community with their representative – it’s not that complicated,” Sariñana said in a written statement to the Journal.