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AG candidate’s residency may ultimately be matter of legal opinion

— Whether George Sheldon, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, meets the state’s residency requirement to run may come down to a war of words.

After Democratic primary opponent Perry Thurston questioned his residency earlier this week, Sheldon told the Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau he has been gathering informal opinion letters from leading lawyers to bolster his case.

Not that he needs them — yet.

As of Friday afternoon, no one lodged a formal challenge to Sheldon’s candidacy, according to a review of court filings in Leon County Circuit Court, where such a complaint likely would be filed.

Thurston, the outgoing House Democratic Leader, did not respond to a request for comment.

Sheldon said there are no controlling legal decisions that definitively interpret the state constitution’s residency requirement of seven years. History, though, offers conflicting examples.

In 2005, Lawton “Bud” Chiles, son of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, dropped out of the race for governor after critics questioned his residency because he had lived in New York and New Jersey the previous 10 years.

Lawton Chiles, however, served as a U.S. senator 1971-89 in Washington, then returned to Florida and successfully ran for governor in 1990, serving till his death in 1998.

Also, Janet Reno, another Florida native, lived in Washington while she became the longest-serving U.S. Attorney General of the 20th century, then returned to Miami to run for governor in 2002. Though she lost the primary to Bill McBride, her residency wasn’t questioned.

All were Democrats.

Sheldon lived in Washington, D.C., from 2011-13 while working as acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He says he never intended to give up his Florida residency.

“I think the confusion is that folks can have multiple residences,” Sheldon told Tribune/Scripps. “It’s no different than a member of congress going to Washington or a college student going off to school … but I understand the confusion. And it is the political season.”

Sheldon, 67, grew up in Plant City. He formerly served as head of the state Department of Children and Families and was a deputy attorney general under Democrat Bob Butterworth.

He has maintained his current home in Tallahassee since 2007; Leon County property records show he has a homestead exemption on that house.

The Florida Constitution requires candidates for attorney general, as well as governor, lieutenant governor, agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer, to have “resided in the state for the preceding seven years” when they are elected.

It further says the attorney general “must have been a member of the bar of Florida for the preceding five years.”

He also said the only reason his residency is being questioned is his exemption from continuing legal education requirements, or CLEs, required by The Florida Bar. He asked to be relieved from those requirements while in Washington.

Sheldon had been ineligible to practice law because he hadn’t taken the classes, though he was listed as active on the bar’s website as of Friday.

Florida lawyers are required to attend 30 hours of approved CLEs every three years. Many lawyers appreciate the classes, often held in hotel banquet rooms and similar halls with 100 or more in attendance, while others find them a drudge and historically have hidden in a back row to work on client cases.

“The Bar has told me that continuing education is required whenever a lawyer is practicing in Florida, not on factors constituting legal residence to qualify for public office,” Sheldon said. “I have been a member in good standing of the Florida Bar for 35 years, and remain so.”

One legal opinion that Sheldon shared, from Tallahassee-based lawyer Ronald Meyer, says “accepting an appointment to serve our nation in Washington, D.C., did not require George to give up his Florida residency; nor did he do so.”

Meyer, who has long represented the Florida Education Association, added that Sheldon is “registered to vote in Florida; he has a Florida driver’s license, and the list goes on. ...

“While his service in the nation’s capital excused him from the Florida Bar’s continuing education requirements, it did not require him to relinquish his Florida residency,” Meyer said.

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