Louisiana voters could soon decide whether convicted felons who want to run for public office can do so without restrictions.
The Legislature is weighing several proposals this session that seek to reinstate a constitutional amendment that had barred felons from seeking state or local office during the 15 years after they served their sentences.
The state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the state’s old constitutional provision, approved by voters in 1998, was invalid after a challenge from a former state lawmaker who spent two years behind bars on corruption charges.
On Wednesday, the state House and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced one of those proposals after it received overwhelming support. That measure — or a similar one — has to make it through both chambers of the Legislature before voters get the final say on a statewide ballot.
“At a time when confidence in government is so low, anything we can do to make sure we have the people of the highest character there is important,” said Rep. Greg Miller, a Norco Republican and sponsor of House Bill 275. “All we’re doing is allowing the voters to have a say on this.”
The old constitutional amendment was thrown out in January, paving the way for convicted felons to seek office here.
Former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, D-Marrero, had challenged the prohibition after he was disqualified from running for the Louisiana House. Shepherd, who served in the Legislature for four years, pleaded guilty in 2008 to accepting money from the sale of fake bonds.
The court ruled the constitutional amendment invalid largely on a technicality because the ballot wording didn’t match the language approved by the Legislature, which exempted felons who only served probation and not jail time.
The state high court’s January ruling appeared to suggest that a properly adopted provision would pass legal muster, though.
“There are a lot of other states that legislate very similarly to this,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans. “I believe there will be a bill that passes this session that addresses the issue.”
Because the laws are set by each state separately, the rules vary from state to state, research from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows. Several states already place similar time-based restrictions on felons running for office or restrict by crime committed. Many specifically bar those who have been convicted of corruption charges, such as bribery.
Others allow convicted felons to seek office once they have served time and paid all penalties, while some allow only those who have received pardons to run for office.
Which path Louisiana could take is still being hashed out, and lawmakers expressed different views during Wednesday’s hearing.
Miller’s bill is modeled after the statute that already was in place.
“I don’t know why they picked 15 years back then,” Leger said. “I just think we ought to consider having a more logical reason for having 15 years than, ‘That’s what they had before.’ ”
Rep. Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport, said he was concerned about the time and whether some felons should be exempted, based on the crimes they have committed.
“Fifteen years is a very long time, and every felony is not the same,” he said. “I think there needs to be a waiting period, but 15 years can be a very long time during a productive period of a person’s life.”
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.
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