Derrick Shepherd’s hopes of running for his old state House seat on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish were temporarily bolstered Tuesday by a Baton Rouge judge who struck down a 1997 constitutional amendment that forbids convicted felons from running for public office until 15 years after finishing their prison term.
That ruling now heads straight to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
State District Judge Wilson Fields, a former state senator himself, agreed with Shepherd — who served time in prison for money laundering — that some language adopted by the Legislature was missing from the ballot when voters approved the measure.
“I feel vindicated, and I thank the Lord,” Shepherd said outside Fields’ 19th Judicial District courtroom.
The omitted language said a person who has been convicted of a felony but receives probation instead of prison time can qualify to run for elective office after successfully completing that probation.
“The voters did not vote on what the Legislature passed,” Fields said in his ruling from the bench.
Shepherd, a former state senator and representative from Marrero, was convicted in 2008 of money laundering and was sentenced in 2010 to 37 months in federal prison.
Robert Garrity, one of Shepherd’s attorneys, said Tuesday that the missing language is an issue of equal protection under the law. The language, he said, should have been in the voting booth for voters to consider when they cast their ballots.
“What was voted on by the House, what was voted on by the Senate, was not voted on by the people,” Garrity argued to Fields. “This is not a procedural issue. This is not a technical issue. This is a substantive issue.”
Without the constitutional amendment, Garrity added, there is no impediment to Shepherd running for office.
William Bryan, an attorney for the Secretary of State’s Office, argued that what voters approved was indeed constitutional.
“You can’t carve out portions of legislation and say, ‘Vote on it,’ ” Fields countered.
Shepherd qualified earlier this month to run for the House of Representatives District 87 seat that he won in 2003, but Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick filed a lawsuit to keep his name off the Oct. 24 ballot.
On Friday, 24th Judicial District Judge Stephen Enright ruled that Shepherd, because of his conviction, is disqualified from running for the House seat, but the judge held off on removing Shepherd’s name from the ballot while his attorneys appeal. Enright did not consider the merits of Shepherd’s constitutional challenge.
The state 5th Circuit Court of Appeal will hear an appeal of Enright’s ruling Wednesday.
Terry Boudreaux, an attorney for Connick, said Fields’ ruling will be appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.
“It’s not completely over, but I do believe we’ve got the law on our side,” Shepherd said. “We’re going to stay in the fight till it’s finished.”
Shepherd, a Democrat, won a Senate special election in 2005 but pleaded guilty three years later to helping an unlicensed bond broker launder money. He then resigned his Senate seat.