LAFAYETTE — An alderman with the town of Baldwin must vacate his seat on the board, according to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which ruled this week that Tony Gibson was not qualified to run for office in 2010 because of a 1997 felony conviction.
In the opinion published Tuesday, justices reinstated a 2011 District Court ruling and reversed a 1st Circuit Court of Appeal opinion that kept Gibson on the board.
Louisiana’s constitution provides two ways a convicted felon can run for office: a governor’s pardon or a 15-year lapse between the end of a sentence and qualifying to run for office, according to the opinion.
Gibson contended that the reprieve he automatically received from Louisiana’s first-offender pardon, granted to all one-time felons, satisfied the requirements of the Louisiana Constitution.
The Supreme Court disagreed, saying first-offender pardons did not rise to the constitutionally required level of a governor’s pardon.
“Had the people intended for felons who had been granted an automatic first-offender pardon to be immediately qualified to run for office … they could have said so (in the constitution), and they did not,” the court wrote.
“Instead, a convicted felon is not forever prohibited from running for public office, he simply must wait 15 years from the completion of his sentence,” justices wrote.
Gibson pleaded guilty in 1997 to carnal knowledge of a juvenile, a felony, and was sentenced to five years in prison, according to court papers.
The prison sentence was suspended, Gibson was placed on supervised probation for three years, and the automatic first-offender pardon was granted in October 2002, the documents say.
Gibson, who has sat on the five-member board since January 2011, did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday. Baldwin Mayor Wayne Breaux also did not return a message left with his office seeking comment.
Gibson’s attorney, Nelson Taylor, said late Wednesday that he had not yet read the opinion.
Briefed in a telephone interview on what the opinion contained, Taylor said Louisiana’s top justices had muzzled a key feature that allowed felons, especially black felons, to participate in government.
“It was the intent of that provision to give people like Mr. Gibson a fresh start and restore him and restore their rights, the right to vote, the right to participate …,” Taylor said.
Taylor said the Supreme Court’s decision affects the state’s black population the most because they make up the majority of those who are and who have been incarcerated by the state.
“What does the first-offender pardon do? It doesn’t do anything. They’ve virtually written it out of existence,” he said.
Taylor said he would ask the Supreme Court to rehear the case.
He also said he might request a review by the U.S. Supreme Court because of possible 14th Amendment due process violations against Gibson.
The ruling published Tuesday overturns a decision by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal. The 1st Circuit ruled Gibson should remain on the board because the St. Mary District Attorney’s Office didn’t file objections to his running for office in a timely manner.