Among the most awkward encounters this political reporter has ever experienced took place several years ago, not much before midnight on Dec. 23. I was walking into a Toys R Us store in Sacramento, and almost literally bumped into then-Assemblyman Tom McClintock walking out, arms full of gifts.
McClintock represented Ventura County in the Assembly, and by law had to live in the district. The Legislature had been out of session for four months. Yet, here he was, doing Santa's errands in Sacramento on the eve of Christmas Eve.
We wished each other a Merry Christmas, commented on the happy seasonable demands placed on parents of young children, and parted ways.
I did not write a story, and did not file a complaint with the district attorney. Although McClintock kept an address and his voting residence in his Southern California district, he did not by any common definition actually live there.
My reaction was, "So what?"
McClintock may not have lived in the district, but he was of the district -- born there, reared there, cut his political teeth there. No one could call him an interloper.
This anecdote is topical now, of course, because a Los Angeles jury convicted Sen. Rod Wright last month of eight felony counts stemming from charges that he did not actually live in the district in which he ran for office and then represented. As did McClintock, Wright maintained a rental property in his district that for legal purposes he called home.
Indignant calls are arising that Wright either resign or be removed from office by his fellow senators. And indeed, if the judge affirms the verdict and imposes a sentence on March 12, as is now scheduled, one of those two things should happen.
A law is a law, no matter how nonsensical, and Wright at that point would become a convicted felon.
But if ever there was an argument to be made for jury nullification, this was such a case. The facts may have been proved, but the law was an arse.
It may be that jurors found Wright to be a less-than-sympathetic defendant. He is an elegant dresser -- hands down, the best-dressed member of the Legislature -- and a highly skilled orator, but he has about him an unmistakable air of arrogance.
Why was the law Wright was convicted of nonsensical?
Even if Wright did not actually tuck himself into bed within the district, there can be no question that as an individual he is very much of the heavily African-American communities in and around Los Angeles that he represents. He has been a part of that community for a very long time.
When lawmakers paid tribute in January to the late Nelson Mandela, Wright, 61, told the story of how he had been an advance man for Mandela's visit to Los Angeles nearly a quarter-century ago. He was no interloper to his district.
Consider also that the boundaries of a legislative district are arbitrary and temporary (new districts are drawn every decade). A district is a geographic entity utterly without a sense of place.
A provision that required a senator or Assembly member to reside in a county that is in whole or in part within his or her district would make sense. A county is an actual place -- permanent, identifiable and, to a degree, independently governed.
In fact, as it pertains to senators, county of residence was what the California Constitution's residency requirement originally had in mind. It specified that each county would have its own senator -- a provision later invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court's fair-representation doctrine of one person, one vote.
And then there is the issue of the voters' will. They elected him, and it's highly unlikely their judgment was based to any degree whatsoever on what street address legally constituted his "residence" and which was his "domicile."
The district-residency requirement for legislators is not going to change. It's in the state Constitution, and no lawmaker is going to propose a constitutional amendment saying that legislators should not have to live in their districts.
Given that the law is likely permanent, Californians are left to rely on district attorneys to decide when it is appropriate to try to ferret out political interlopers. We must hope that prosecutors use sober and sensible judgment.
Among the crimes of which jurors found Wright guilty was voter fraud. But what do you call it when a district attorney substitutes his judgment of who should represent a district for that of the voters?