The political career of nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis has been declared a false start.
A federal appeals panel ruled Thursday that he should be removed from a state Senate ballot because he does not meet the New Jersey's four-year residency requirement. Lewis' lawyer said he has not decided whether to appeal, but time is running short: Ballots are about to go to the printer for an election less than seven weeks away.
The ruling in the topsy-turvy and politically charged case came nine days after the same three-judge panel from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Lewis, a Democrat, should be on the ballot. But instead of issuing a full legal opinion, the court scheduled another hearing, which it held earlier this week.
And when its opinion came out Thursday, it was different than the earlier order:
"Lewis has failed to show that, as applied to him, the four-year state residency requirement for the office of state senator in New Jersey has treated him unequally," the opinion said.
And in a footnote, the Philadelphia court gave the practical directive to county clerks' offices: "The printing of ballots without Lewis' name may proceed."
It's not clear whether it will be that simple.
Democratic officials could ask a court to halt the printing of ballots for two reasons: so they could challenge Thursday's ruling or so they could nominate a replacement candidate.
Burlington County Democratic Committee Chairman Joe Andl said Thursday morning that his committee's legal team would need to review the ruling before making a decision.
But they won't have much time. The legal deadline to begin sending out ballots to residents living overseas — including military personnel — is Friday. And ballots are to be sent to other voters within days.
In a statement, Lewis' lawyer seemed resigned to the idea that the track star won't be running for office this year.
"It is unfortunate that the voters of the Eighth Legislative District are being denied a meaningful choice in this election by today's decision," said William Tambussi. "The extreme measures taken by the Republican Party to keep Carl Lewis off the ballot truly do a disservice to the voters."
Still, Tambussi said, Lewis was still considering his options.
Republicans, meanwhile, lauded the ruling.
"Carl Lewis clearly did not meet the constitutional residency requirement to run for Senate and, in spite of his celebrity status, he has to play by the same rules that everyone else has to play by," said Chris Russell, a consultant to the Burlington County Republicans who intervened in the case. "Frankly, it never made much sense that someone who had not paid income taxes in New Jersey and didn't register to vote in New Jersey until the day he announced his candidacy, should be on the ballot for State Senate in New Jersey."
Lewis, 50, grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey, went to college in Texas and settled in California.
In 1984, he was one of the big stars of the Olympic in Los Angeles, winning four gold medals in track and field and moving from famous in his sport to famous everywhere. He would add five more Olympic golds over the next 12 years.
He bought homes in New Jersey in 2005 and 2007 and began working as a volunteer track coach at Willingboro High School. But he continued to pay taxes in California and voted there in 2009. He registered to vote in New Jersey only this year.
Secretary of State Kim Guadagno, a Republican who is also the lieutenant governor elected as Gov. Chris Christie's running mate, removed Lewis from the ballot.
In its ruling Thursday, the court, which was weighing not only when Lewis became a resident but also which legal standard should be used to review whether the requirement itself was constitutional, said that was the right decision.
Lewis and his supporters say it was a politically motivated move designed to keep the well-known Democrat from running against Republican incumbent Dawn Addiego in the 8th Legislative District, a reliably Republican area in the outer ring of New Jersey's Philadelphia suburbs.
Lawyers for the state say they were just trying to enforce a residency requirement that's been part of the state constitution since 1844.