By John Lyon

By John Lyon

Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK — The mayor of Lepanto can continue to serve, the Arkansas Supreme Court said Thursday in a decision rejecting a challenge to the mayor’s eligibility.

The state’s highest court upheld a circuit judge’s ruling that Steve Jernigan was elected legally. The Poinsett County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office had sought to remove Jernigan, alleging that he was not eligible for the office because he did not reside in the eastern Arkansas city.

According to the Supreme Court’s opinion, Jernigan bought a home outside Lepanto in 1995. In July 2010 he began renting a residence inside the city limits for $1 a month, and two months later he began renting a different residence in the city for $5 a week.

Jernigan testified that he kept the home he had purchased in 1995 because it was an old family home, and he used the rental property while preparing to move to a permanent residence in Lepanto. He said he spent the night at the rental property in Lepanto “all the time,” though he did not bathe or shower there and kept his clothes in his truck.

But Jernigan’s wife, Judy Jernigan, testified that she continued to live at the home outside Lepanto and did not intend to abandon it. She said she had never been to her husband’s apartment.

Poinsett County Circuit Judge Ralph Wilson said at the conclusion of the hearing that the prosecutor’s office had made a strong case that Jernigan’s residence in Lepanto was “a subterfuge and a farce.” But Wilson also said that state law merely requires a candidate for mayor of a city to reside in that city and offers “not much guidance” in defining residency.

The prosecutor’s office did not cite relevant case law and did not meet the burden of proof that Jernigan did not reside in Lepanto, Wilson said, and on Thursday the Supreme Court agreed.

The high court said Arkansas Code 14-42-201 (c)(1) does not define “reside,” but the court noted that the General Assembly has made a distinction between “residency,” i.e., living or being physically present in a place, and “domicile,” i.e., a permanent home.

“Had the Legislature intended for Section 14-42-201 (c)(1) to include a domiciliary requirement, it would not have used the word ‘reside’ in the statute,” Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion.

Hannah also said that in a previous opinion the Supreme Court said “residence” is usually treated as if it were synonymous with “domicile,” but that statement “appears to have caused much confusion.”

“A better statement of the law is that, in determining residency of voters and public officials, this court has considered 1) whether a person was physically present in a particular location, or 2) whether a person intended to establish a domicile in a particular location.

“In other words, if a candidate was unable to establish residency by showing physical presence in the requisite location, the court has allowed a candidate to establish residency by showing domiciliary intent in the requisite location,” Hannah wrote.