UI student-trustee candidate's residency complaint dismissed

URBANA — A Champaign County judge has dismissed a complaint from a University of Illinois student who was removed from the student-trustee ballot because of his residency status.

Graduate student Carey Ash said Monday he will continue to fight the university's interpretation of a state law that requires student trustees to be Illinois residents.

"What I think we saw today was a clear conflict of justice," Ash said after Monday's hearing. "The law is undeniably clear: residents of the state are eligible to be student trustees. The Illinois General Assembly did not establish the criteria of pay to play to serve on the board of trustees."

Ash, who is originally from Louisiana, insists that he meets residency requirements under state law and has for several years. He argues that the UI's more restrictive rules about who qualifies for in-state tuition are not applicable to the state statute on trustee elections.

He filed a complaint in Champaign County Circuit Court in early March to prevent the UI from holding the election after campus officials said he could not run because the UI doesn't consider him a state resident. The election went on, Ash waged a write-in campaign, and he came in fourth place.

On May 2, Ash appeared before Champaign County Circuit Court Judge Mike Jones for permission to file an amended complaint, essentially asking the court to review and reverse the UI's decision.

The UI, represented by William Brinkmann of Thomas, Mamer and Haughey of Champaign, filed a motion to dismiss Ash's complaint. Brinkmann argued Monday that under the state's civil-procedure code, the case is moot because the election is over.

"Without question, this subject is moot," Jones agreed. "This court cannot grant meaningful relief for the 2013 election."

Jones also concluded that the case didn't meet the standard for exceptions to that law, including an "extraordinary" public interest. The judge said he was reluctant to interfere with an internal UI administrative decision unless it was a clear abuse of authority, such as preventing a student from running based on religious preference, politics or gender.

If an administrator tried to shape the board into a particular political philosophy, it would be of "very significant public interest," he said. "The actual question of who is a resident isn't necessarily a question of extraordinary public interest."

Three student trustees are elected annually to the UI board, one from each campus, and one of them holds an official vote.

The state's University of Illinois Trustees Act requires a student trustee to maintain a 2.5 grade point average, be a full-time student and be "a resident of this state," but it does not define residency.

Ash, a graduate student studying law and educational policy, serves on the Urbana Plan Commission, has lived in Urbana for five years and has voted here since 2010.

The campus Student Code and university regulations include additional requirements to establish residency for the purposes of admission and tuition, including "the intent to reside permanently in Illinois for reasons other than educational objectives." The code states that someone who is an Illinois resident for tax or voting purposes is not necessarily a resident for UI tuition and admission purposes.

To qualify for in-state tuition, students have to maintain "bona fide residency" in Illinois for at least one year before applying to the UI or before starting classes for the term in question. Proof of residency can be registering to vote in Illinois, having an Illinois driver's license, financial independence through outside employment, or leasing a home and paying utilities in the state.

UI officials say it's unusual for students to qualify for in-state tuition once they've been admitted as nonresidents, unless they take a job here unrelated to their education or their parents move to Illinois.

Dean of Students Ken Ballom informed Ash on Feb. 25 that he did not meet eligibility requirements and could not run.

Ash said administrators applied the wrong criteria, as tuition and fees are not mentioned in the state law on trustees, and the UI's regulations are "for tuition purposes."

Emails in court documents show that Ash provided documentation about his lease, voter registration, state tax returns, and admission to practice law before the federal district court in central Illinois to prove residency under UI rules. But Ballom challenged Ash's claim that he was financially independent, saying part of his income as a grad student came from the UI.

"I can vote to rezone the courthouse, but not on tuition and fee policy," Ash said Monday, referring to his service on the plan commission.

Jones said the trustee act allows administrators to decide on the criteria for residency: "My decision isn't necessarily based on whether I agree or disagree but on the prospect of this court making decisions for the University of Illinois."

The law says the court can step in if it's clear an "authoritative interpretation" is needed to guide administrators in the future, but Jones said it's inappropriate for the court to step in unless there's evidence of constitutional violations or abuse of authority.

"At best, this is an administrator splitting hairs on what he thinks is a resident," Jones said. "Who am I to tell him how to do his job?"

Jones said he used the same threshold when he dismissed a lawsuit filed by supporters of Chief Illiniwek hoping to overturn the university's decision to retire the longtime symbol.

Ash had argued that Ballom's decision effectively precludes him from running again in 2014, which he hopes to do. But Jones said circumstances could change or Ballom might view it differently. He said Ash has plenty of time to challenge the UI's decision if it happens again.

Ash said the same thing has already happened to another UI student, Thomas Hough, who tried to run in 2012 but was removed from the ballot for failing to meet residency rules.

Brinkmann afterward praised Jones' decision but declined to comment on the residency argument itself.

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