BATON ROUGE (CN) – Felons can run for public office in Louisiana because the state Senate improperly amended the state constitution in 1998 to prevent it, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled.
Under state Senate Bill No. 321, of 1997, unpardoned, convicted felons were to be prohibited from seeking a municipal or state office. State Sen. Max Malone, who introduced the bill, sought to add the felon-disqualifying paragraph to the state constitution.
The bill was amended in the Senate, providing an exception for felons who had completed their sentence more than 15 years before the candidate-qualifying date.
The Senate passed the bill by 29-3 vote on May 27, 1997.
House Representative Kyle Green added a provision that the felon must have been jailed for his or her conviction, and that if not, he or she could still run for office.
The House passed the bill, with the Green amendment, by 71-31 vote.
But the bill the Senate adopted in 1998 excluded the Green amendments.
Seventeen years later, former state Rep. and former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd certified that he would run for the State House in the Oct. 24, 2015 primary. He filed notice with the Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court on Sept. 10.
Four days later, Paul Connick Jr., the parish’s district attorney, filed a petition in objecting to Shepherd’s candidacy, claiming he had pleaded guilty to a felony in October 2008, and it has been less than 15 years since he completed his sentence.
Shepherd, in turn, filed a petition in the 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge, seeking to declare the 1997 amendment null and void.
Shepherd sought to enjoin Connick and Louisiana’s secretary of state and attorney general from prosecuting Connick’s suit pending resolution of his constitutional challenge.
Though the East Baton Rouge District Court denied Shepherd’s request for a temporary restraining order on Sept. 17, it later declared the amendment null and void.
Connick appealed, and a divided Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision on Jan. 27.
“What the Legislature passes and what is submitted to the voters for approval must be the same,” Judge John Weimer wrote for the three-judge panel. “Because, in this case, ‘the voters did not vote on what was passed by the Louisiana Legislature in 1997,’ the district court declared the 1998 amendment to Constitution article I, sec. 10 unconstitutional. We can find no fault with the district court’s analysis in this regard.”
The court rejected the claim that omitting Green’s amendment was a clerical error.
“To characterize what occurred as a mere ‘clerical error’ is a serious mischaracterization, as that error strikes at the core of the constitutional requirements,” Weimer wrote.
Judge John Guidry dissented.
“The majority permits this plaintiff, who would be ineligible to seek office in any case, to effect the eventual dismantling of the Legislature’s and the electorate’s considered view restricting the scope of persons qualified to seek public office,” Guidry wrote. “The majority should not have recognized this particular plaintiff’s standing to challenge the constitutional validity of the 1997 amendments to Louisiana Constitution article I, sec. 10.”
Judge Crichton concurred, saying that though he believes felons should be disqualified from seeking elective office, the Legislature failed to follow the proper process to enact a constitutional amendment.
“In this instance, application of article XIII, § 1 of the Louisiana Constitution leads me to conclude that, as the opinion points out, what the citizens of Louisiana voted on was not what the Louisiana Legislature enacted. The Legislature can, if it chooses to do so, once again address this issue in order to rectify this troublesome result.”
Parties on both sides did not respond to emailed requests for comment Friday.
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