Louisiana voters this fall will decide whether it's important to be able to vote for a crook or if they want ex-cons to have to wait awhile before they can run for office.
A proposed constitutional amendment, which would establish a five-year cooling-off period before a felon can become a candidate, will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot — more than two years after the state's high court nullified a previous 15-year ban that had been in place for nearly two decades.
"I think there is a certain amount of integrity that is necessary in the political world to develop trust of the people," said state Sen. Conrad Appel, a Metairie Republican who sponsored the legislation that put the proposal on the ballot.
If it's successful, a person convicted of a felony would have to wait five years from the end of the original sentence, including probation or parole, before he or she could run for state or local office in Louisiana. It would not apply to people who have been pardoned.
"We as elected officials want the voters' faith and trust," Appel said. "We have to earn that trust, and if we violate it, we should not be in a position to throw it back in your face."
The measure may also be viewed as a way to hit back at Louisiana's historical reputation as being a state plagued by government corruption and criminal politicians.
"(Voters) don't want even the image of corruption," Appel said. "I think these kinds of things symbolically are important."
In 1998, voters overwhelmingly agreed to an amendment that blocked felons from seeking office for 15 years. It ultimately was upended with a 2016 ruling from the state Supreme Court, based on a technical issue with how it was presented on the ballot.
Since that ruling, there has been no waiting period for ex-cons who want to run for office in Louisiana.
LaPolitics.com recently reported that at least three former mayors who have been convicted of felonies are running for their old offices in the towns of Ball, Jonesboro and Waterproof. None of the three would be on the ballot this fall if the state's 15-year ban were still in place.
If the ballot measure fails, 2019 will be the first legislative and statewide election cycle in which there is no restriction on felons seeking office.
"I just think it's a really simple thing. It was voted on by the people before at 15 years because they want it," Appel said.
The previous 15-year wait became a matter for a court to decide when Derrick Shepherd — a former state lawmaker who served time behind bars for a money-laundering scheme — wanted to run again for the state Legislature in 2015.
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Shepherd, who was first elected to the Legislature in 2003, resigned in late 2008 and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering, a felony. He was released to federal probation in March 2012, after serving time in federal prison and at a halfway house. The 15-year prohibition meant he could not run for his old House district seat in 2015, even though he would go on to successfully overturn the prohibition.
Shepherd thinks the five-year proposal is more reasonable than the old law, he said.
"It's definitely better than 15," he said.
But he believes it's unnecessary, and he doesn't plan to vote for it.
"I just think voters should be able to make their own determination," he said.
Shepherd is plotting a future run for office, though he said he hasn't decided which race to jump into.
Shepherd's attorney in his suit that ended the old prohibition, Robert Garrity, said he thinks state lawmakers have more pressing issues that they should be addressing than felons running for office. He dismissed the proposal as needless "feel-good legislation."
"I think it's worthless. It will pass — probably big," he said. "Does it do any good? That's the bottom line."
Garrity, a Republican, served in the state Legislature from 1988 to 1992, representing a Jefferson Parish district.
"How many convicted felons have tried to run for public office?" he said. "We've always got to be meddling in someone else's business."
Appel had initially proposed reinstating the 15-year ban, but the bill was amended in a Senate committee to lower it to five years.
Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, proposed the change and explained in the hearing that he felt five years would be sufficient because it's based on the entire sentence being served.
"You're talking about from the point of when probation is completed," he told the Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee, which approved the change without objection. "I think five ... accomplishes solving the problem."
Appel would prefer that anyone convicted of a felony never regain the ability to run for office, he said, but he is settling for the proposed cooling-off period.
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"It's better than nothing," he said. "Hopefully, it will instill in the public a degree of confidence."
Garrity argued that, particularly in light of Louisiana's recent criminal justice overhaul, some felons will get out early for good behavior and benefit from new re-entry programs that aim to prevent re-offenders. The proposed constitutional amendment says five years after original sentencing, so they would still have to wait several years even if they have become model citizens, Garrity said.
"(Legislators) are the poster children for hypocrisy," he said.
Garrity said it should be up to voters to decide if they think that a felon is the most qualified to represent them. He also said he doesn't think that people outside of a district should be able to determine who can and cannot run somewhere else.
"It ain't any of their business," he said.
Appel knows naysayers would argue that electors don't have to elect a felon just because one appears on the ballot, he said.
"That's true, I just think it's important that there is a message," he said. "I think these kinds of things symbolically are important."