Meredith v. Clarksdale Democratic Exec. Comm., 2021-EC-00305-SCT

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
Writing for the CourtGRIFFIS, JUSTICE
PartiesSCOTTY MEREDITH v. CLARKSDALE DEMOCRATIC EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE AND MAYOR CHUCK ESPY
Decision Date09 June 2022
Docket Number2021-EC-00305-SCT

SCOTTY MEREDITH
v.

CLARKSDALE DEMOCRATIC EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE AND MAYOR CHUCK ESPY

No. 2021-EC-00305-SCT

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

June 9, 2022


DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/23/2021

COAHOMA COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. ANDREW K. HOWORTH, TRIAL JUDGE

TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS:

JAMIE F. LEE

RALPH CHAPMAN

WILLIAM SEALE

AMANDA J. TOLLISON

DEONDREY RASHAD RUSSELL

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT:

JAMIE F. LEE

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES:

AMANDA J. TOLLISON

DEONDREY R. RUSSELL

GRIFFIS, JUSTICE

¶1. Scotty Meredith ran for mayor of Clarksdale, Mississippi. The mayor at the time, Chuck Espy, challenged whether Meredith was qualified to run for mayor on the basis that Meredith was not a Clarksdale resident. The Clarksdale Municipal Democratic Executive Committee found that Meredith was not a resident of Clarksdale and was not qualified to run for mayor. The trial court, similarly, found that Meredith was unqualified to run for mayor. Meredith appealed the judgment of the Circuit Court of Coahoma County.

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¶2. Under Mississippi Code Section 23-15-300, if a candidate fails to prove in their qualifying information that they meet the two-year residency requirement, the candidate must prove by absolute proof that they meet or will meet the residency requirement on or before the applicable deadline. Finding no error, the judgment of the Coahoma County Circuit Court is affirmed.

FACTS

¶3. On January 4, 2021, Meredith filed the necessary papers to qualify to run for mayor of Clarksdale. Meredith's qualifying information identified his residence as1128 Park Circle, Clarksdale, Mississippi. This address was his mother-in-law's residence.

¶4. On February 8, 2021, three days after the qualifying deadline, Espy challenged whether Meredith was in fact qualified to run for mayor. Espy claimed that Meredith was not a resident of Clarksdale. Instead, Espy claimed that Meredith actually resided at his lake house, which was located at 116 Meredith Road, Alligator, Mississippi, and is not within the Clarksdale city limits.

¶5. On February 16, 2021, Meredith responded to Espy's petition and asserted that he actually resides at 314 E. 2nd Street, Clarksdale, Mississippi. This is the address of the funeral home that Meredith owns and operates. Meredith argued that he had an apartment at the funeral home. Meredith admitted that he did not live with his mother-in-law and effectively abandoned the claim in the qualifying papers that he resided at his mother-in-law's address.

¶6. The Clarksdale Municipal Democratic Executive Committee held a hearing on

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February 16, 2021, to consider Meredith's qualifications and Espy's challenge-i.e., to determine Meredith's actual residency. The next day, the committee unanimously determined that Meredith did not meet the residency requirements and that he was not qualified as a candidate for mayor in the Democratic Primary scheduled for April 6, 2021. The committee sent Meredith a letter that provided that:

[N]o proof was submitted during the hearing that you resided at [your mother-in-law's address]. You signed a Qualifying Statement of Intent as a candidate for the party nomination of Mayor which listed your residential address as [your mother-in-law's address]
Though your response, pictures, and witnesses focused on [the funeral home apartment], no absolute proof or documentation was submitted to the Executive Committee effectively establishing your residency at [the funeral home apartment] for the required two (2) years prior to the General Election. However, proof submitted by the petitioner, indicates that you reside at [the lake house], for at least a portion of the prior two (2) years including homestead exemption. In addition, testimony indicated continued use of the . . . [lake house].

¶7. On February 22, 2021, Meredith appealed the committee's decision under Mississippi Code Section 23-15-961 (Rev. 2019). A trial was held on March 19, 2021, before a specially appointed circuit judge.

¶8. At trial, Meredith conceded that he did not live and has never lived at his mother-in- law's address. Meredith testified that he used his mother-in-law's address on his mayoral qualifying form because he was previously told, in 2019, when he ran for coroner, that he could not use the funeral home apartment address.

¶9. Meredith testified that, in 2019, when he ran for coroner, he used the funeral home apartment address on his qualifying form. He further testified that Ray Sykes, chairman of

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the Democratic Executive Committee, told Meredith that he could not put his funeral home apartment address on the form since it was a business address.

¶10. Sykes testified and confirmed that he told Meredith that he could not use the funeral home apartment address on his qualifying form for coroner. Sykes said that he did not tell Meredith which address to use on his qualifying form, but he said that it had to be different. After Meredith's conversation with Sykes, Meredith changed the address on his coroner qualifying form.

¶11. Meredith testified that he and his wife moved to the lake house in 2000. Meredith testified that he still owns the lake house, pays utilities, and files homestead exemption on the lake house. Meredith's vehicles are registered using the lake house address. The lake house is also listed as Meredith's residence on his driver's license. Meredith has not updated his driver's license because he did not know that he had to update his license when he moved.

¶12. Meredith then testified that, after severe flooding in March 2018, he and his wife decided to add an apartment to the back of the funeral home. Meredith stated that the funeral home apartment was to be his permanent residence.

¶13. The renovations included a water closet, washbasin, shower, and a sewer line. At the end of April 2018, after the renovations were complete, Meredith and his wife moved into the funeral home apartment. Meredith testified that the funeral home apartment was never zoned for mixed residential and commercial use; however, a city inspector did approve the renovations.

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¶14. Meredith also testified that, at the end of April 2018, a satellite television was installed at the funeral home apartment. The technician testified that the funeral home apartment was fully furnished, pets were living there, and it appeared that the funeral home apartment was Meredith's residence.

¶15. Additional testimony showed that Meredith lived at the funeral home apartment. Mike Pittman testified that he was a co-tenant of the funeral home apartment. In addition, Stewart Woods, who worked at the Firestone store across from the funeral home apartment, testified that he observed Meredith walking his dog early in the morning. Stewart further testified that since 2018 he has observed Meredith playing with his grandchildren and dog outside the funeral home apartment.

¶16. There was also evidence that, in 2019, a spare bedroom was added to the funeral home apartment. Currently, the funeral home apartment has two bedrooms. Meredith's daughter and grandchildren stay in the second bedroom when the lake house floods.

¶17. Drew Brown testified that he was a neighbor of the lake house. Brown testified that he rarely saw Meredith at the lake house. This was consistent with Meredith's testimony that he visits the lake house occasionally to see his grandchildren. However, Meredith testified that when Meredith's wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2020, they visited the lake house less often because of the stairs.

¶18. Meredith testified that he was called out to work cases as a coroner at all hours. He testified that the funeral home apartment was much more conducive to promptly arriving for work calls. Through his coroner reports, a Coahoma county map, and a compilation of

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coroner call times over the last several years, Meredith demonstrated that he responded to coroner calls from his apartment at the funeral home.

¶19. Pat Wood, a local security officer, testified that he patrolled the downtown area extensively overnight and that Meredith's vehicle was always present at the funeral home apartment. Wood patrolled the area because there had been issues with break-ins.

¶20. Although an exact date was not confirmed, evidence showed that Meredith changed his voter registration address from the lake house to the funeral home apartment address.[1] On March 2, 2020, Meredith changed his voter registration from the funeral home apartment address to his mother-in-law's house, believing that he could not use the funeral home apartment address based on his conversation with Sykes.

¶21. In 2020, Meredith's daughter, Dana Gaston, and his grandchildren moved into the lake house. Dana testified that she and her family temporarily moved to the lake house and do not pay any rent or utilities because her parents own the home. Meredith testified that he does not charge Dana rent because she recently went through financial hardships.

¶22. At the close of the trial, the trial court noted that Meredith, without ill-intent, created a multi-residency scenario in reliance on his conversation with Sykes. Additionally, the trial court stated that no weight was placed on Meredith's driver's license or vehicle registration. The trial court also noted that it "did not place any credence" on the "zoning of the property"

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that Meredith "was living in."

¶23. In a written opinion, the trial court found that Meredith was a resident of the lake house for election purposes. The trial court based the ruling on (1) Meredith's conflicting address on his qualifying form; (2) Meredith's voter registration's not being his place of residence; and (3) Meredith's homestead exemption on the lake house.

¶24. On appeal, the question is whether Meredith resides at the funeral home apartment in Clarksdale city limits or the lake house outside...

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