OPINION – Senator Rod Wright’s recent guilty verdict by a Superior Court jury trial and his leave of absence from the California State Senate is troublesome for our community. He was found guilty of 8 counts of perjury and voter fraud which to the average person sounds horrendous. Most of us want squeaky clean elected officials and when we hear words like perjury we just assume guilt. But in America we have to dig deeper to discern what is really happening to us in the criminal justice system.
Roderick D. Wright, born July 3, 1952, is a Democratic politician who represents California’s 35th and represented the 25th State Senate Districts from 2008-2012.
Wright also represented California’s 48th State Assembly District from 1996 until he was term limited in 2002.
Prior to his initial entrance into elected office in 1996, Senator Wright was the District Director to Congresswoman Maxine Waters where he assisted citizens with federal matters such as Social Security, Medi-Care and veterans issues among others. In other words, he has been a good public servant, popular with his constituents and highly respected in the State Capitol community.
So, what happened?
This man’s stellar public service career is tainted on a technical definition that many can’t discern the distinction between “domicile versus residence”. The charge brought about by Steve Cooley, a Republican District Attorney who was determined to bring down prominent African Americans elected officials, sent Senator Wright’s case to the grand jury in 2010 accusing him of filing false declaration of candidacy, voter fraud and perjury, beginning in 2007 when he changed his voter registration to run for the legislature. He was found guilty on all 8 counts on January 29 2014. This began a partisan game with Republicans
making the original charges and now calling for his ouster from the State Senate.
So, one might be thinking that if Senator Wright was found guilty by a jury, that’s ends that. In this country we have zillions of cases where false or improper decisions are rendered to African Americans.
You have to ask, what instructions were given to the jury?” Were they asked to render a decision that did not fall into their purview?
The conditions of service in the legislature, according California laws, should be determined by the Rules Committee of the Senate. Was the jury given a clear definition of domicile versus residence?
We believe this was a misassignment of a case.
According to the dictionary, residence is the fact of dwelling in a place for some time, living or regularly staying at some place for the discharge of duty. A domicile is the status of being a permanent resident in a particular jurisdiction. A person can remain domicile in a jurisdiction even after they have left, if they maintain sufficient links and have not displayed an intention to leave permanently.
The Senator established legal residence in Inglewood, where he owned the building, was registered to vote, paid taxes and maintained living space. This is a practice that has gone on for many years.
At one time all of the state Black Elected Officials from the southern part of the state lived in Baldwin Hills even though they represented Districts in other parts of the city. We currently have several members of the legislature that don’t live in the Districts they represent. And, members of congress are not required to live in their District. Thus, what did the jury base their decision on -hearsay?
This is clearly selective prosecution.
Fredric Woocher, an election law expert said, “it is really murky as to what exactly is required to establish a legal domicile in one place vs. another when you have multiple residences.”
Most elected officials have more than one residence. We were hopeful that the newly elected District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, would have reviewed the case as requested, and thrown it out as was the case brought against Republican Senator Mimi Walters from Orange County. Obviously Ms. Lacey agreed with her former boss Cooley and did nothing.
Senator Wright pleaded not guilty and argued he met all the legal criteria for running in what was then the 25th Senate District, including moving possessions into his Inglewood home he has owned since 1977 where his stepmother lives. Greg Schmidt, secretary of the Senate indicated that he knew of no case in which a sitting legislator has been convicted of perjury and voter fraud crimes. There have been cases where the legislature has given permission to members to live outside of their District.
This is a travesty that must be corrected. We must continue to stand with and support the Senator during this ordeal.
Black leadership in this country has been eroded by unfair attacks through the criminal justice system. We urge Senator Wright to stand his ground, appeal this awful decision because his services to California are needed now more than ever.
By Alice Huffman,
President, California NAACP
EDITOR’S NOTE: Alice A. Huffman is the California State President and a National Board Member of the NAACP.