Supreme Court to consider who should replace Charlie White

A Democrat who lost the 2010 race to become Indiana's top elections officer by 300,000 votes hopes to win the office courtesy of the Indiana Supreme Court, but legal experts say the will of voters may factor heavily in the court's decision.

Runner-up Vop Osili, 49, told The Associated Press he still wants the job for which he spent two years campaigning.

"There were times when it was trying," said Osili, an Indianapolis City-County Council member whose first name stands for "Voice of the People." ''But I ran hard for this office."

The state's high court will hear arguments Wednesday on whether Osili should replace Charlie White, who was ousted from office following his Feb. 4 conviction on voter fraud and other charges.

Democrats contend White was never eligible to run for office because he listed his ex-wife's address instead of his new condo on his voter registration form to avoid giving up his Fishers Town Council salary after moving out of the district he was elected to represent.

The Indiana Recount Commission upheld White's candidacy last June, but Democrats appealed to a Marion County judge, who overturned that decision in December and ordered the panel to certify Osili the winner of the November 2010 election.

The commission's appeal of the judge's decision is the case now before the high court and will determine who gets to appoint White's successor.

In cases of removal from office due to conviction, the governor—Republican Mitch Daniels—appoints the successor. But if the winner's candidacy is declared invalid, he is replaced by the runner-up — in this case, Osili.

Legal experts say it's hard to imagine the court going against the will of voters.

"There was a very decisive opinion expressed by Indiana voters," said Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville. "So in my mind it does seem fair to let voters get what they voted for, which is a Republican candidate."

Democrats argue in court briefs that voters' selection of White "has already been overturned—not by this election contest but by the criminal convictions of White."

But the recount commission contends that the cases are unrelated and that the jury didn't hear all the evidence because White's attorney didn't present a defense. It says the court should not overturn the results of an election.

"By insisting that the convictions dictate the result of the commission's election review, the party ignores the law and seeks a political windfall from the courts that its candidate did not earn at the polls," the commission said in its own brief.

David Orentlicher, a former state representative who teaches constitutional law at Indiana University McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, said the justices may look closely at voters' intentions as they weigh the case.

"At this level, people are more voting by party, and the court may feel it's more appropriate for the governor to replace, because the voter intent was to have a Republican in the office," he said.

Dion said legality and politics might work at cross-purposes in this case.

"When you look at the law you can make a strong case that Osili really is the top vote getter if you invalidate Charlie White," Dion said. "The law seems pretty clear, but the idea seems far-fetched."

Daniels has named White's chief deputy, Jerry Bonnet, interim secretary of state, but he isn't expected to make a permanent appointment until the Supreme Court rules.

Whoever ultimately takes over the job will have to restore public confidence in the office, which is the ultimate arbiter of Indiana elections and tops the ballot in off-year elections. The state constitution gives the secretary of state authority to oversee elections by registering candidates and certifying winners, even in case of a recount. The office also enforces campaign finance laws, and the party that holds the office gets the deciding vote among precinct officials who run local elections.

The secretary of state also oversees business registrations and enforces Indiana's securities laws.

"Anybody who takes over, whether me or appointed, will face the same challenges," Osili said.

White was sentenced Feb. 23 to one year of home detention. He plans to appeal his convictions.
 

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