Louisiana Record

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Louisiana Supreme Court could overturn law barring felons from public office

By Annie Hunt | Jan 1, 2016

NEW ORLEANS – Former state legislator and convicted felon Derrick Shepherd addressed the Louisiana Supreme Court last week with an argument that the constitutional provision that disqualified him from running for the state House Representatives this year is invalid.

While the details of the provision Shepherd claims are unconstitutional did not specifically pertain to his case, the legality of the amendment as a whole could impact Shepherd’s political future.

In 2008, Shepherd pled guilty to public corruption charges and spent two years in prison. Only five years later this fall, he ran for the District 87 seat in the House, bringing quick legal attacks to his eligibility as a candidate.

According to a 1997 Louisiana legislation amendment, convicted felons are prohibited from running for office until 15 years after completing their sentence. In September, the Supreme Court upheld rulings forbidding  Shepherd from running due to the recency of his incarceration.

In a related case in Baton Rouge, Shepherd and his attorney Robert Garrity contested the constitutionality of the law. Shepherd argued that the 1997 amendment has no legal legitimacy due to a discrepancy between the amendment and a last-minute change made by the legislators to the voter ballot. The change exempted felons who were only given probation, which had no application to Shepherd’s case in September.

“Shepherd’s underlying legal argument is one of legal principle, totally apart from his own circumstance,” Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, recently told the Louisiana Record.

In the Baton Rouge case, State District Judge Wilson Fields agreed with Shepherd and rendered the provision invalid due to an inconsistency between a constitutional amendment and a voter-approved ballot measure. It came down to a language game regarding the legislation, which did not provide voters with the necessary information to make a knowledgeable decision according to the judgment of Fields.

Before the hearing in Baton Rouge, and shortly after Shepherd’s decision to run, the state filed a separate case against Shepherd in Jefferson Parrish. Despite their efforts to prove the unconstitutionality of the law like they did with Fields, Shepherd and Garrity lost this trial; and Judicial District Judge Stephen Enright ruled to disqualify him. They also went on to lose before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal.

Shepherd appeared before the Supreme Court on Dec. 22, and he and his team have hope that they will side with the Baton Rouge judgment.

As it stands, the issue is currently less of a civil rights issue for felons, and belongs in the sphere of politics and the legal judgment of the Supreme Court.

“We have no opinion on what is basically a question of the validity of the ballot under the Louisiana constitution,” Esman told the Louisiana Record. “That is a question for the Supreme Court to decide.”

The Supreme Court could make its decision within the next month.

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