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Zephyr Teachout case explained by Brooklyn court

Residence vs. domicile the issue in governor primary dispute

August 12, 2014 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Zephyr Teachout will stay on the gubernatorial ballot, much to Andrew Cuomo's chagrin
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New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo was defeated, once again, in his attempt to remove a Brooklyn challenger from the ballot in the pending Democratic primary race for governor. A Brooklyn Supreme Court justice ruled against the incumbent finding that his challenger was indeed a resident of New York and allowed to remain a valid choice for voters.

Zephyr Teachout, a law school professor, threw her name in the ring as a candidate for governor back in July. Almost immediately Cuomo challenged her candidacy, asserting that Teachout did not possess the requisite petition signatures and that the challenger was not a true resident of the state she wished to govern. Generally, disputes as to a candidate’s residency are handled by one of the counties Supreme Courts.  As Teachout currently lives in Brooklyn, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Edgar Walker presided over the two-day trial in a special hearing, which began on Aug. 7.

New York’s constitution mandates that all wishing to run for governor reside in New York for at least five years before the next general election. Cuomo contended that Teachout — who was born in Vermont — did not meet this basic requirement, arguing that from 2009 to present, Teachout was a constant traveler and resident of many states other than New York.

In most legal disputes over a person’s residence, the crux of the argument lies in the distinction between a person’s residence versus their domicile. Domicile, according to the legal use of the word, is where an individual has established a permanent home —one that he or she intends to return to even if a person chose to temporarily relocate elsewhere. Residence, on the other hand, refers to one’s temporary place of abode. For election law cases, the two terms equally refer to one’s permanent home.  

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“Under the Election Law, residence and domicile are treated as one in the same,” Walker explained in his ruling on the matter.

As Cuomo’s challenge stood on whether or not Teachout was truly a New York resident, Walker analyzed not only the physical place that Teachout called home but also her intent as to where she defined home to be. Teachout began her residential journey in New York in 2009 when she accepted a position at Fordham Law School. During that time through March 2011, Teachout lived in various apartments within New York City. In April 2011, Teachout rented her first apartment in Brooklyn on Roebling Street moving back to Manhattan in November 2011. Teachout did not stay for long, heading back to Brooklyn a year later and settling in the Fort Greene apartment she has resided in since November 2012. 

During trial, Teachout admitted that she spent a significant amount of time, in the summer months, with her family in Vermont using the bucolic setting to work on her book and assist family members who still live in her hometown. Not every summer was spent visiting relatives, Teachout conceded, with some of the time being spent Arizona researching working on racial profiling legislation and in Washington, D.C., for book research. Trips notwithstanding Walker concluded, “Ms. Teachout has continuously maintained a domicile and residence in New York state, and was physically present here with the intent to remain for a time.” 

Cuomo’s counsel agreed that Teachout’s “temporary interruptions in the summer” would not, on its own, invalidate Teachout’s residency, but rather, the governor asserted, that Teachout lacked the intent to make New York her permanent home. Cuomo maintained that Teachout’s driver’s license and car registration list her parent’s Vermont address and her bar registration is in North Carolina where she graduated from Duke University School of Law. Walker looked beyond these examples of attempted documentary proof of intent and focused on more substantial documents. According the trial record,Teachout filed New York state tax returns from 2009 through 2013 — and since 2010, Teachout has been registered to vote in New York. However, Cuomo’s counsel pointed out that on her 2009 state tax returns Teachout indicated that she lived “zero days” in New York City.  Teachout explained, and Walker agreed, that in 2009 she used her parent’s Vermont address because her New York apartment was a temporary sublet.

Even without the documents listing residence, Walker was convinced that Teachout carried the required intent to make New York her home.

“Whether or not Teachout misrepresented her actual residence to regulatory bodies in New York or elsewhere…are for other bodies to address and are not relevant to this determination,” Walker wrote.  It is clear, Walker deduced, that Teachout moved to New York to pursue a tenure-track position at Fordham University.

Given the evidence revealed at trial, Walker dismissed Cuomo’s challenge to invalidate Teachout’s petition. 

“Gov. Andrew Cuomo tried to kick me off the ballot, claiming that I wasn’t a New Yorker. I never had any doubt that I was a New Yorker, but now we have official court approval stating that as a matter of law, I am a New Yorker and I will be on the ballot in the Democratic primary for governor,” Teachout told the Brooklyn Eagle at a party celebrating her legal victory Monday night.

Cuomo also lost the Board of Elections challenge that Teachout’s petition lacked sufficient signatures. 

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