Hale v. State

Decision Date24 July 2015
Docket NumberNo. 2015–EC–00965–SCT.,2015–EC–00965–SCT.
Citation168 So.3d 946
PartiesSteve HALE v. STATE of Mississippi DEMOCRATIC EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE, Rickey Cole, Chairman and Bill Stone.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Joshua A. Turner, Jackson, Mona T. Pittman, Batesville, attorneys for appellant.

Edward Blackmon, Jr., Janessa Emontan Blackmon, Bradford Jerome Blackmon, Canton, attorneys for appellees.

EN BANC.

Opinion

KITCHENS, Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. In October 2013, William Bill Stone moved from Ashland in Benton County to Holly Springs in Marshall County. He now seeks the Democratic Party nomination for the newly-created Senate District 10, a district which encompasses parts of Marshall County, including Stone's home in Holly Springs, and parts of Tate County. On March 2, 2015, Steve Hale,1 a resident of Tate County who also is seeking the Democratic nomination for District 10, filed an objection to Stone's candidacy with the State of Mississippi Democratic Executive Committee, arguing that Stone is ineligible to run for that office because he does not meet the two-year residency requirement enunciated in Article 4, Section 42, of the Mississippi Constitution. Specifically, Hale argued that Stone could not be a resident of Marshall County because Stone had not abandoned his domicile in Benton County. Following its hearing on March 13, 2015, the Executive Committee rejected Hale's objection and certified that Stone had satisfied the qualifications for candidacy. Hale sought judicial review in the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Hinds County. On June 19, 2015, the circuit court held that Stone had been domiciled in Marshall County since October 2013 and was qualified to run for senator of District 10. Hale appealed to this Court.2 We affirm the decision of the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Hinds County because, in accordance with the Mississippi Constitution and precedent of this Court, the circuit court was not in manifest error in holding that Stone had proven that he had established his domicile in Marshall County and that he therefore was qualified to run for the office of senator for District 10.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. In 1988, Bill Stone purchased a home at 47 Winborn Avenue in Ashland, Mississippi, which is located in Benton County. He lived in the Ashland home with his wife, Debbie, off and on from 1988 to 2013. During his residency in Ashland, Stone was active in the local community, holding membership in the Ashland Civic Club, volunteering with the Ashland volunteer fire department, and attending Ashland Baptist Church. In 2007 and 2011, Stone was elected to represent District 2 in the Mississippi Senate. At that time, Senate District 2 was comprised of parts of Benton, Tippah, and Marshall Counties. Sixty-five percent of Senate District 2 was in Marshall County.

¶ 3. In 2012, Mississippi underwent significant redistricting, which affected the boundary lines for the State's legislative districts, both for the House of Representatives and Senate. Under the redistricting plan, Stone's home on Winborn Avenue in Ashland was located in Senate District 3. Stone decided that he preferred to reside in Holly Springs, which had been part of the former Senate District 2 and which he had represented as State Senator. Holly Springs had become a part of Senate District 10. The newly-drawn Senate District 10 included portions of Marshall and Tate Counties.

¶ 4. In October of 2013, Stone rented a house from his brother at 305 Peel Lane in Holly Springs. Stone and his wife decided to live exclusively in the home's mother-in-law suite” in order to cut back on their expenses. The mother-in-law suite” is less than half the size of Stone's Ashland home. After moving into the Peel Lane house, Stone immediately contacted the Holly Springs Utility Department to obtain electrical service for the home. The Peel Lane house's water was provided by a private well, and the home did not have natural gas service. Stone transferred his DirectTV box and service to his new residence. For the majority of the time that Stone resided at the Peel Lane house, the State Senate was in session in Jackson.

¶ 5. Although he had claimed homestead exemption in 2013 for his home in Ashland, Stone did not claim homestead exemption in 2014, because the rental home on Peel Lane in Holly Springs was ineligible. Furthermore, in February 2014 and September 2014, when they came due, Stone registered the car tags on his and his wife's cars in Marshall County. In April 2014, Stone registered to vote in Marshall County. On his 2014 federal income tax return, Stone listed the home on Peel Lane as his home address. He also adjusted the mileage deduction he claimed on his federal income tax return to reflect a move to Marshall County. Additionally, on October 27, 2013, he notified the State Senate comptroller of his change of address, and the comptroller sent an e-mail to every member of the Senate informing them of the change.

¶ 6. Stone also transferred his other affiliations from Ashland to Holly Springs. He did not renew his membership in the Ashland Civic Club, and he resigned from his post as an Ashland volunteer firefighter. He and his wife began attending church at Heritage Apostolic Church in Holly Springs.

¶ 7. In July 2014, Stone purchased a home at 200 Johnson Park in Holly Springs. In 2015 he claimed homestead exemption for the Johnson Park home and listed the home as his residence on his federal income tax return.

¶ 8. Stone did not sell his house in Ashland when he moved to Holly Springs, planning to convert it into a rental property. When Stone was in Jackson serving in the Mississippi Legislature or when he traveled out of town, his wife frequently stayed in the Ashland home. Occasionally, Stone's wife did laundry at the Ashland house or took her lunch break there. In July 2014, Stone filled the Ashland house's above ground pool for his grandchildren to swim there during the summer. Stone's grandchildren regularly left their bikes on the Ashland house's front lawn.

¶ 9. After moving to Holly Springs, Stone announced that he was planning to run for the District 10 Senate seat. On March 2, 2015, Steve Hale, a resident of Tate County who also was seeking the Democratic nomination for District 10, filed an objection to Stone's candidacy with the State of Mississippi Democratic Executive Committee, arguing that Stone was ineligible to run for that office because he did not meet the two-year residency requirement found in Article 4, Section 42, of the Mississippi Constitution. Specifically, Hale argued that Stone could not be a resident of Marshall County because he never had abandoned his domicile in Benton County. After conducting a hearing on the matter on March 13, 2015, the Executive Committee rejected Hale's objection and certified that Stone had established the requisite qualifications for District 10 Senate candidacy.

¶ 10. On March 16, 2015, Hale filed a Petition to Contest the Qualifications of Bill Stone as a Candidate for Senate District 10 in the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Hinds County, seeking judicial review of the State of Mississippi Democratic Executive Committee's decision. On March 18, 2015, this Court assigned a special judge, the Honorable Frank Vollor, to decide whether Stone had established his domicile in Holly Springs, Marshall County. On June 18, 2015, the circuit court conducted an evidentiary hearing. In support of his allegation that Stone had not abandoned his home in Benton County, Hale presented utility records for both the house on Peel Lane (Marshall County) and the house in Ashland (Benton County). According to these documents, Stone had used 230 kilowatt hours of electricity a month at the rental house and 740 kilowatt hours of electricity a month at his Ashland house. Hale also presented various photographs of Stone's homes taken on different days. In one picture, Stone's mother's truck was parked at the Ashland (Benton County) house. In another picture, taken at noon on a weekday, no cars were parked in front of the home at 200 Johnson Park. In yet another picture, Stone's wife's car was parked at the Ashland house on a Friday during her lunch hour. Hale also presented a Facebook post in which Stone was pictured watching a football game with his grandson in Benton County.

¶ 11. Hale also sought to introduce into evidence the testimony of Wallace Majors, a “utility analyst.” Majors purported to be an expert in utility usage and claimed that he was able to determine, based upon utility consumption, whether a dwelling was “occupied” or “unoccupied.” After reading Majors's curriculum vitae and expert report, the trial court excluded him as an expert in utility consumption. In an order signed on June 17, 2015, the circuit court summarized Wallace's testimony thusly: “Mr. Majors holds himself out as an expert in energy conservation and utility rates and attempts to arbitrarily graft [the] terms ... of ‘occupied’ and ‘unoccupied’ [on houses] ... for ... a determination of domicile.” The circuit court determined that Majors's opinion was without “a scientific basis” and that it was “based upon a number of assumptions that have no factual or scientifically tested basis.” During the evidentiary hearing on June 18, 2015, Hale was allowed to proffer Majors's testimony. According to Majors, the rental house on Peel Lane (Marshall County) was “unoccupied” from October 2013 to July 2014, and the house in Ashland (Benton County) was “occupied” during that time.

¶ 12. Stone testified at the evidentiary hearing. He said under oath that he had no plans to return to the home in Ashland and that he intended to remain in Marshall County indefinitely.

¶ 13. The circuit court held that Stone had established a domicile in Marshall County in 2013 which has continued to the present. The circuit court found that:

[C]ounting kilowatt hours cannot be the sole determination of where a person lives for purpose of
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