Bates v. BD. OF ELECTIONS AND ETHICS

Decision Date27 May 1993
Docket NumberNo. 92-AA-1428.,92-AA-1428.
Citation625 A.2d 891
PartiesJeremy BATES, et al., Petitioners, v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA BOARD OF ELECTIONS AND ETHICS, Respondent, Peter Espenschied, Intervenor.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

Howard E. Shapiro, with whom Jeremy Bates and Ross Ain, Washington, DC, were on the brief, for petitioners.

William H. Lewis, Washington, DC, with whom Alice P. McCrory, was on the brief, for respondent.

Peter Espenschied, pro se, for the intervenor.

Before SCHWELB, FARRELL, and KING, Associate Judges.

KING, Associate Judge:

Petitioners seek review of the Board of Elections and Ethics ("the Board") certification of intervenor Peter Espenschied as the winner in the November 3, 1992, election for Advisory Neighborhood Commission ("ANC") single-member district 3C09. Concluding that the Board did not adhere to the plain meaning of the statute which required them to certify the candidate who received the highest number of votes, we reverse the decision of the Board and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Petitioners, residents of ANC district 3C09, voted in the November 3, 1992, election for the ANC Commissioner for that district. Following the election, the Board determined that Ms. Lois Noroozi received 436 votes (59.2% of the total votes), while the incumbent and intervenor in this action, Mr. Peter Espenschied ("incumbent"), received 280 votes (38% of the total votes). On November 6, 1992, prior to the Board's certification of the winner of the election, Ms. Noroozi informed the Board in writing that she was "withdrawing from holding the office of ANC Commissioner for 3C09" because she no longer lived within the boundary of that ANC district. Her letter explained that she moved out of her district approximately two weeks before the election, and that at the time of her change of residence she mistakenly believed she was only required to reside in the ANC prior to filing her petition for candidacy.1

On November 18, 1992, the Board held a "special meeting" to certify the results of the November 3, 1992, ANC elections. At the meeting the Board noted that at the time of the election, the electors in district 3C09 were not aware that Ms. Noroozi was not a "viable candidate." Faced with the withdrawal of Ms. Noroozi, the Board determined: "we do, in fact, need to certify, under the current case law, the second-place finisher, and ... we do not have, in any event, specific authority not to declare a winner in this circumstance and to call a new election."2 In its posting of the ANC election results, the Board certified the incumbent as the winner, with the notation that Ms. Noroozi "withdrew after the date of the election prior to certification. The person receiving the second highest number of votes is declared the winner." Petitioners filed a timely petition for review of this certification on November 24, 1992. See D.C.Code § 1-1315(b) (1992) (any person who voted in an election may petition this court to review such election within seven days of the Board's certification and the court "may set aside the results so certified"). Upon petitioners' request, we stayed the effectiveness of the Board's certification pending resolution of this petition for review. Accordingly, the office has been vacant since January 2, 1993, when the incumbent's term ended.

When Ms. Noroozi notified the Board that she was no longer a resident of her ANC district and that she was withdrawing from holding office, the Board, in its own words, found itself in a "limbo period, postelection/precertification," in which it had to determine whether the election could "go to the second place finisher, or, in fact, does it have to be a special election?" The Board concluded that it was required to certify the second place finisher and was without authority "not to declare a winner... and to call a new election." We conclude that this was error.

Generally, when an agency interprets its own regulations or the statute which it administers, we will defer to that interpretation as long as it is not inconsistent with the applicable statute. Columbia Realty v. Rental Hous. Comm'n, 590 A.2d 1043, 1046 (D.C.1991); see also McCulloch v. Rental Hous. Comm'n, 584 A.2d 1244, 1248 (D.C.1991). In reviewing an agency decision which interprets or applies statutory provisions, we follow the Supreme Court's two-part test established in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984). See Columbia Realty, supra, 590 A.2d at 1046. This requires, first, that we determine whether the meaning of the statute is clear. "Only when the statute is ambiguous does the court turn to the second part of the inquiry, which is to determine whether the agency's decision is based on a permissible construction of the statute." Id. (citing Chevron, supra, 467 U.S. at 842-43, 104 S.Ct. at 2781). Accordingly, if the language of the statute involved is clear, we do not defer to the agency's interpretation.

D.C.Code § 1-258 (1992) provides that "the candidate in each single-member district receiving the highest number of votes cast in such election shall be declared the winner, except that in the case of a tie the procedures set forth in § 1-1314(c) shall govern." Although the statute provides no qualifications or exceptions to this mandate, the Board maintains that they are only required to certify a qualified candidate receiving the most votes.

In support of its interpretation, the Board cites § 1-256(a)(1)(A), which provides that one cannot be a "member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission" unless one "is a registered qualified elector actually living in the single-member district from which he was selected." The Board contends that this section, "in clear and unequivocal language, defines ANC candidate qualifications." Section 1-256(a)(1)(A), however, applies to qualifications of actual members of the ANC,3 and not to a candidate, which is the operative term in § 1-258 (the Board is required to certify the candidate receiving the most votes). Accordingly, the provisions of § 1-256 provide no support for the Board's claim that pursuant to § 1-258, it can only certify qualified candidates.

Ms. Noroozi met all legal requirements for access to the ballot and her candidacy was never officially challenged during the challenge period. See D.C.Code § 1-256(b)(1).4 The Board does not contend otherwise.5 In short, she met all the requirements necessary to ensure her place on the ballot and we conclude that she was therefore a candidate within the meaning of § 1-258. In reaching that conclusion we note that the virtually unanimous authority holds that words of common use are generally construed according to the natural, plain and ordinary meaning, and that where a word has a fixed technical meaning it is to be taken in that sense. FRANCIS J. MCCAFFREY, STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION § 12, at 39 (1953); see Barbour v. D.C. Department of Employment Services, 499 A.2d 122, 125 (D.C.1985) ("words of a statute must be construed by their common meaning and their ordinary sense") (citations omitted); Stuart v. American Security Bank, 494 A.2d 1333, 1338 (D.C.1985) ("words in a statute are to be construed according to `their ordinary sense and with the meaning commonly attributed to them'") (citation omitted); McDermott International, Inc. v. Wilander, 498 U.S. 337, 345, 111 S.Ct. 807, 811, 112 L.Ed.2d 866 (1991) (when a statute uses a "term of art," Court will assume Congress intended it to have its established meaning); Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 263, 72 S.Ct. 240, 249, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952) ("where Congress borrows terms of art in which are accumulated the legal tradition and meanings of centuries of practice, it presumably knows and adopts the cluster of ideas that were attached to each borrowed word in the body of learning from which it was taken"). Every dictionary we have consulted defines a candidate essentially as one who seeks office. None of the definitions limit the term candidate to those who are qualified.6 Here Ms. Noroozi met every legal requirement to be listed on the ballot as a candidate, and we find nothing in the governing statutes that suggests that the term candidate should be restricted in the manner advanced by the Board. Thus we conclude that the term means exactly what it says and that Ms. Noroozi was a candidate within the meaning of § 1-258.

The law requires that the Board certify the candidate receiving the highest number of votes in an ANC election. Since we are satisfied that the language of § 1-258 is clear, we conclude that there is no basis for deferring to the Board's construction of the statute.7Columbia Realty, supra, 590 A.2d at 1046 (court only addresses issue of whether agency decision is based on permissible construction of the statute if the statute is ambiguous); see also J. Parreco & Son v. District of Columbia Rental Hous. Comm'n, 567 A.2d 43, 45 (D.C.1989) (when interpreting a statute, the court must first look to the language of the statute; "if the words are clear and unambiguous, we must give effect to its plain meaning").8 Thus, we conclude the Board was obligated to declare Ms. Noroozi as the winner of the election since she was the candidate who received the most votes. In no event do we find any basis in the governing statutes which would permit certification of the second place finisher as the winner of the election.

Our reading of the statute produces a result that is consistent with the overwhelming majority view in American jurisdictions, also known as the "American rule," that holds that where the candidate receiving the most votes is deceased, disqualified, or ineligible, the runner-up candidate will not be deemed the winner of the election. According to the American rule:

votes cast for a deceased, disqualified, or ineligible person are not to be treated as void or thrown away, but
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