By John Nolan
The Associated Press
Gov. Bob Taft should have ordered a special election to fill the vacancy created when James A. Traficant Jr. was kicked out of Congress for a bribery and racketeering conviction, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
The Constitution requires special elections when a seat becomes open during a congressional term, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 ruling.
Traficant, a Democrat, was expelled from Congress in July 2002 after his conviction, but his seat was left empty until after the November election. He is serving an eight-year prison sentence.
Taft decided it was not worth the expense or possible voter confusion to hold a special election for a new lawmaker who could end up serving just a few weeks. He was challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The appeals court overturned a lower court's ruling and said Taft's decision denied voters their constitutional rights to vote and to equal representation.
The decision sends the case back to U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. in Columbus to calculate attorneys' fees due to the ACLU.
While time may be too short in some cases to warrant a special election, there was enough time in this case, Judge Karen Moore wrote for the majority. Although the position has been filled, the appeals court said the issue remained important because another seat could become vacant in the future.
In his dissent, Judge James Ryan disagreed that Ohio had enough time to hold the election.
"Despite the obvious cost and confusion, a special election might nevertheless have been required were it not for the very real likelihood that Congressman Traficant's replacement would have arrived too late to represent the citizens," Ryan wrote.
The appeals court had rejected the ACLU's request in September 2002 for an immediate order to require Taft to hold the special election.
Kim Norris, spokeswoman for the Ohio attorney general, said a special election would have cost elections boards in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties at least $800,000. Also, a candidate would not have been elected in time to serve when Congress was in session in September, October and part of November, she said.
ACLU attorney Scott Greenwood said the winner could have served if Taft had ordered a special election as soon as possible after Traficant was expelled.
"This shows that every vote is important," he said. "In the time that Taft refused to call a special election, at least 10 percent of Ohioans had no voting representative in the House of Representatives."
State lawyers will review the ruling and decide whether to appeal, said Orest Holubec, a spokesman for the governor.
Traficant was convicted in April 2002 of accepting bribes and gifts from businessmen in exchange for intervening with government agencies. He had represented the Youngstown area for nine terms and tried to regain his seat from prison as an independent.
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