Gov. Bentley wants to toss lawsuit on delayed Senate election

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- It turns out Gov. Robert Bentley, or at least his lawyers, will not have to appear in Montgomery Circuit Court Tuesday in connection with a lawsuit filed by Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler.

Zeigler filed a lawsuit against the governor, arguing Bentley is violating state law by waiting until next year’s election cycle to hold a special election for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by now-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

After Sessions was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in February, Bentley appointed Luther Strange to the vacant seat. Under the current schedule, the seat will be up for a special election in 2018, and then it will be up again in 2020 for a full six-year term.

A hearing was set on the lawsuit for Tuesday, but it was continued until April 12.

Alabama’s election law addresses special elections for filling office vacancies. If the next general election is more than four months away, the governor is directed to call for a special election “forthwith.”

It turns out that term is not defined under Alabama law, but that’s the sticking point for Zeigler. The lawsuit argues that state law is clear.

Zeigler is asking the court to make Bentley call a special election.

To bolster his argument, Zeigler got an opinion from the Alabama Legislative Reference Service. That agency said, “It appears that Section 36-9-8, Code of Alabama 1975, requires Governor Bentley to hold a special election to fill the vacancy of Senator Jeff Sessions without delay at some time prior to the 2018 General Election.”

But Bentley’s lawyers filed a response last week, arguing the case is due to be dismissed because Zeigler and his co-plaintiff, Tommy Chapman of Conecuh County, fail to suggest a date for the election to be held.

The filing by Bentley’s attorneys also argues there are three reasons to hold the election based on the schedule the governor has set. They contend that after the special election for the seat vacated by former U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, a federal judge found that independent candidates need more time to gather enough signatures to secure a place on the ballot. They contend U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found 106 days wasn’t enough time allow candidates to secure the needed nearly 6,000 signatures. The filing argues that’s even more challenging for a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat, which requires 35,000 signatures.

The filing also argues the Alabama Legislature hasn’t set aside money for a special election cycle that would include primaries, a runoff and a general election. The filing says such a special election cycle would cost about $14 million.

And Bentley’s lawyers argue that federal rules for overseas, absentee and military voters mean that elections officials need 54 days to prepare for each round of voting.

But Zeigler has been sharply critical of the special election delay.

“Under the illegal delay by Gov. Bentley, his anointed U.S. Senator gets a free ride for almost two years before an elected Senator can take office,” Zeigler said in a news release Monday.

“Bentley and Strange think they have gotten away with this illegal election. They have not gotten away with it yet, and the people of Alabama will remember this at election time.”