ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The Supreme Court of Ohio voted 4-3 this week to dismiss a claim that Belmont County Sheriff Dave Lucas was not a qualified candidate in the 2012 general election in which he defeated challenger Dick Flanagan.
The decision, outlined in an opinion released Wednesday, ends an 18-month debate over whether Lucas was legally permitted to run for and hold office.
In the November 2012 general election, Lucas, a Republican, defeated Democrat challenger Flanagan after receiving 16,859 votes to Flanagan's 14,209 votes.
However, in December 2012, Gary Landers of Bellaire filed a contest with the Belmont County Board of Elections questioning Lucas' qualifications. He cited Ohio law, which requires elected sheriffs to be employed as a law enforcement officer within the past four years to hold the job, and also serve in a supervisor role. Landers claimed Lucas listed his date of retirement on his certification for candidacy as Oct. 31, 2007 - a little more than five years prior to the general election.
Landers also questioned Lucas' residency in the county. A second letter making similar allegations was filed by Mark Landers, also of Bellaire.
A week later, the board of elections rejected both contests, stating they were filed too late and not by a member of the Republican party, and that neither man had any standing to file such a protest.
In February 2013, Mark Landers filed a contest with the Ohio Supreme Court, asking for Lucas to be immediately removed from office. The action stated Flanagan was entitled to hold the office as the only legal candidate on the ballot. Landers' action cited the same employment qualifications and residency requirements as the county-level contest.
In responding to the action, Lucas released his Ohio tax returns for 2007-2011 to prove his residency. Additionally, Lucas' attorneys Christopher Gagin and Tracey Lancione Lloyd cited his 26 years as a Belmont County sheriff's deputy and rank as major as qualifying him to hold the sheriff position. Lucas also challenged Flanagan's qualifications for the position, citing his classified employment with the Bellaire Police Department.
The Supreme Court opinion released Wednesday states Flanagan, as the losing candidate, "has no reasonable grounds to assert entitlement to the office" and that Flanagan, "cannot show even the possibility of entitlement" to the office. Because of this, the court did not consider Lucas' qualifications, deeming the contest itself invalid.
The court also cites case law which states a vacated office must be filled by appointment, and a separate law which states the loser of an election is not automatically deemed to be the officeholder even if the winning candidate is ruled ineligible.
Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O'Donnell and Sharon L. Kennedy agreed on the dismissal, with Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and William M. O'Neill dissenting. Judith L. French concurred in judgment only, meaning she agreed with the majority but for different reasons.
In presenting the majority opinion, Kennedy wrote that Flanagan has no more standing or entitlement to the office "than any concerned citizen who thinks an elected officer is unqualified." While Flanagan has the right to claim the office, "upon good faith and reasonable grounds," he is not entitled to the office as he does not belong to the same political party, Kennedy wrote.
O'Connor, in introducing the dissenting opinion, writes that even though Lucas, "is not qualified to hold the office of Belmont County sheriff, he will retain it," calling the outcome "nonsensical." She expresses dissatisfaction with the court not considering Lucas' qualifications and instead focusing on Flanagan's entitlement claim.
By ignoring the question at hand, O'Connor writes that in the future, "qualified candidates can assume and retain public offices ... so long as no challenger can show entitlement to the office." Additionally, she writes the effect of the ruling "will most likely not be felt by the justices in the majority" but instead "by the men and woman whom we ask to do the most difficult jobs - our first responders - and the people they protect, in Belmont County and throughout the state."
O'Connor writes that although Flanagan did not adequately establish his entitlement to hold office, he is entitled to challenge Lucas' eligibility because, "Lucas is not qualified to hold it under the laws of Ohio."
Lucas said he was pleased with the court's ruling, and he will continue to serve in his position as he has for the past 18 months.
"With this matter behind us, I can move forward to do the job I was elected to do," he said. "I am very proud of the hard work my deputies and I have put in ... to serve and protect the residents of Belmont County to the best of our ability, and I look forward to building on our record of accomplishment."
Flanagan could not be reached for comment Wednesday.