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Keep Rahm Emanuel on the ballot

Updated: April 30, 2011 4:46AM

From the moment it became known that Rahm Emanuel’s candidacy for mayor would face a residency challenge, everyone with a working knowledge of Chicago’s politics and courts knew this day was a possibility.

That made it no less stunning Monday when a campaign backed by $12 million, two U.S. presidents and, according to the latest polling data, nearly half the likely voters in Chicago ran aground on the legal opinion of two previously anonymous Appellate Court justices ­­ ­— Thomas Hoffman and Shelvin Louise Marie Hall.

Many may tell you they foresaw the courts knocking Emanuel off the ballot, but few can tell you honestly that they were prepared for it to happen just as the voting was about to begin.

I certainly wasn’t and am still struggling with what to say.

Let’s start here: the Illinois Supreme Court should not allow this to be the final word on the matter, and Emanuel’s supporters should be in no hurry to find another candidate to support.

Whether they allow Emanuel’s candidacy to go forward or drive in the final stake, the high court must directly consider and address the legal issues raised by the case.

My own belief continues to be that Emanuel deserves to be on the ballot, based on my reading of the legal issues as well as common sense. It’s bizarre to think a sitting Chicago congressman forfeited his residency — and therefore his right to run for city office — by virtue of taking a position serving the president of the United States and moving his family temporarily to Washington. It’s especially bizarre when Illinois law has a provision that would seem to take into account that very eventuality.

However, my lack of a law degree means I can’t state my case nearly as forcefully as did Monday’s dissenting opinion from Justice Bertina Lampkin, who found her colleagues’ decision “erroneous” and “ill-reasoned.”

“An opinion of such wide-ranging import and not based on established law but, rather, on the whims of two judges should not be allowed to stand,” Lampkin concluded.

Lampkin said the legal standard applied by her colleagues to remove Emanuel — drawing a difference between being a resident and “actually resided in” — was “conjured out of thin air.” She also called it a “figment [of their] imagination.”

The strongly worded nature of Lampkin’s dissent should at least give pause to those who want the matter stopped now and the election to go forward without Emanuel on the ballot.

Even Hoffman’s decision makes the point that no prior Supreme Court decisions on residency are exactly on point with the facts raised by Emanuel’s case, which makes it exactly the type of case that deserves a written opinion from the state’s highest court.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that the Supreme Court will see the case any differently or that it will be decided strictly on the merits.

Unfortunately, we have an elected court system in Illinois, and therefore one that is infected by politics.

As others will note today, most of our elected Democratic judges from Cook County must survive a screening process involving powerful Ald. Edward M. Burke, whose support of the Emanuel residency challenge is a poorly kept secret and whose wife sits on the Supreme Court.

Some have suggested I react with outrage to this circumstance, but the problem is that I have seen a political system at work all throughout this process from the decisions that supported Emanuel to this one that now goes against him. How do I decry the one and not the other?

It’s hard to make the case that Emanuel, who has seemed to have nearly every advantage in this campaign starting with the support of the political establishment of the sitting mayor, is somehow unfairly disadvantaged by the politics of the courts.

Some say former Chicago school and park board chairman Gery Chico would be the most obvious beneficiary if Emanuel is not on the Feb. 22 ballot. Perhaps, but I would think many Emanuel voters would think twice about supporting a candidate backed by Burke, a would-be architect of his downfall.

More likely is that their votes would split three ways and that Emanuel would have a big say in influencing the outcome. I would hate to see it come to that, although despite what some readers seem to think, I have no horse in this race.

I came to work Monday morning planning to write that, no matter what they might have read in recent weeks pointing to the inevitability of an Emanuel victory, Chicago voters should understand that nothing had been decided and that they had four worthy candidates from which to choose. I hope they still do.

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