HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania residents no longer have to live within a given district in order to circulate petitions to put candidates on the ballot, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The high court's unanimous ruling, issued Monday, resolved a conflict between state and federal court decisions regarding the Pennsylvania Election Code by enforcing a 2002 federal court injunction against the residency requirement.

"It makes no sense to require petition circulators to live in the same district," said Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which handled the case for a candidate for the legislature in 2010. "It's an artificial barrier to allowing candidates to get on the ballot."

The issue came up most recently in a court battle over the Democratic congressional primary involving two Western Pennsylvania incumbents, Jason Altmire and Mark Critz. Walczak said multiple Commonwealth Court decisions had upheld the residency rule despite the federal injunction.

"The end result is that this residency requirement is unenforceable, period," he said. "So that should completely put to rest this issue."

The case involved the nominating petitions of Carl Stevenson, who was running for a Lehigh County-based seat in the state House in 2010 when two people launched a court challenge, saying three pages of the petitions had been circulated by someone who lived outside the district.

Stevenson was later thrown off the ballot on other grounds, but the justices took the case because they said it was an issue of great public importance that could repeatedly come up but not otherwise receive court review.

A federal judge in 2002 barred the state from imposing the residency requirement, a decision the Pennsylvania Department of State did not appeal and has not attempted to enforce.

In a series of cases, however, Commonwealth Court ruled that the federal decision was not binding on it, and in August 2010 the state court directed the secretary of state to remove Stevenson from the ballot.

"This placed the secretary in the position of being subject to the orders of two different courts, unable to comply with one without violating the dictates of the other," Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote in a majority opinion joined by four other members of the seven-justice court.