Cockerham's re-election bid should be in the clear

by Patrick Flanagan

The lawsuit over his District 7 residency will likely boil down to how the court interprets a state law dealing with reapportionment.

District 7 school board member Mark Cockerham

The lawsuit challenging Lafayette Parish School Board member Mark Cockerham's eligibility for re-election in District 7 will likely boil down to how the court interprets a state law dealing with reapportionment.

The suit, filed last week by a former school system administrator, claims the Breeman Circle address Cockerham listed on his qualifying papers isn't within the boundaries of District 7, and therefore his seat on the board should be vacated immediately. Cockerham is a two-term board member seeking a third term for District 7. The move to Breeman Circle came in the fourth year of his second term.

The issue centers on the 2010 census, and the resulting reapportionment of Lafayette Parish's political districts. The new district maps, however, won't take effect until Jan. 1.

Based on the old map, adopted in 2002, Cockerham's new residence does fall outside the boundaries of District 7, making him a resident of District 9. Yet, Cockerham is a resident of District 7 based on the new map, the one set to take effect in the new year.

The suit is awaiting a hearing in the 15th Judicial District Court, and while it cites Louisiana Revised Statute 17:52E as reason for his immediate removal from office, the law could also be used to argue in favor of his eligibility in the upcoming election, specifically the second paragraph:

Any person who at the time of qualification as a candidate for the school board has attained the age of eighteen, resided in the state for the preceding two years, and has been actually domiciled for the preceding year in the parish, ward, or district from which he seeks election is eligible for membership on the school board.

However, at the next regular election for members of the school board following a reapportionment, an elector may qualify as a candidate from any district created in whole or in part from a district existing prior to reapportionment if he was domiciled in the prior district for at least one year immediately preceding his qualification and was a resident of the state for the two years preceding his qualification.

Since candidate qualifying for the upcoming elections is based off the new map, it appears Cockerham's candidacy for District 7 is safe. The bigger potential problem for him, however, is that the suit is mainly focused on his nearly completed term. It calls for the immediate vacancy of his seat because he moved out of district, arguing that his existing term was governed under the old district map, whereas the new map would only impact the upcoming election.

According to a story in The Advocate Wednesday, based on state law, a hearing should be held within 20 days of Cockerham being served with the lawsuit.

The suit was filed by Nancy Cech. While no attorney is listed representing her, the petition appears to have been prepared with the assistance of an attorney.

One peculiar aspect of Cech's suit is that despite having an air of urgency in calling for Cockerham to vacate his seat immediately, it also includes a request for the court to "Please Withhold Service At This Time," which means a subpoena has yet been issued to Cockerham. Although that step was rendered unnecessary Tuesday when Cockerham's attorney filed a response to the suit, the issuance of a subpoena is typically an important step in getting a lawsuit before a judge. Cech's request to hold off on serving Cockerham is strange given the contents of her lawsuit, particularly the petition for his immediate removal from office. A subpoena will be headed Cech's way, however, as Cockerham's attorney, Gary McGoffin, has requested an opportunity to determine "the underlying methods and motives for [her] petition," which means she could be deposed and required to testify under oath.

What's also unclear is whether Cech is seeking Cockerham's disqualification from the upcoming election, as the lawsuit only calls for his immediate vacancy. But based on Cech's timing, that issue could very well come into play, as her suit was filed exactly a week after the qualifying deadline, right before the filing deadline for candidate disqualification.

Cockerham is running against a local attorney, Dawn Morris.

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