If Jefferson Parish voters want Derrick Shepherd representing them in the Legislature again, the appropriate response from the rest of us would be, “You can have him.”
But that is not possible because the state constitution says felons can’t run for office until 15 years after finishing their sentences.
But it won’t say so much longer if Shepherd has his way. He maintains, and a state district judge has agreed, that the amendment that imposed the ex-con ban was itself unconstitutional.
Felons were free to run for office until voters in 1998 approved the amendment that Shepherd now challenges. When the Legislature proposed it the previous year, the intention was evidently to maintain high standards of integrity in its chambers. Opinions may vary on whether it worked.
Regardless, it was well and truly bungled after the bill that spelled it out was amended on the House floor to provide that felons spared prison could seek public office once they had completed their probation. The House amendment was duly approved by the Senate, but there was no reference to unincarcerated felons in the final act or the proposition on the ballot.
What happened to the missing text may remain a mystery, but there is no doubt that the voters were not presented with the instrument that the Legislature adopted. That, according to Shepherd and Judge Wilson Fields, renders the entire constitutional amendment invalid.
Shepherd has qualified to run for the House seat he won in 2003 before moving up to the Senate a couple of years later. He resigned in 2008 when he pleaded guilty in federal court.
The missing words in the constitutional amendment would have made no difference to Shepherd because he was not the kind of penny-ante offender who gets off with probation. Sentenced to 37 months for money laundering, he was transferred from the federal pen to a half-way house in late 2011 and released under three years’ supervision a few months later. Thus, he had barely escaped the embrace of the justice system before attempting to revive his political career.
Although the breakdown in the legislative process over the constitutional amendment had no effect on Shepherd, his attorney, Robert Garrity, told Fields, “This is not a procedural issue. This is not a technical issue. This is a substantive issue.”
You could hardly wish for a clearer acknowledgement that Garrity is relying on procedural and technical arguments to get his client off the hook. Fair enough. That’s how attorneys earn their fees. But there must a strong chance that the state Supreme Court will find such arguments insufficiently relevant to negate the will of the Legislature and the electorate.
That will be a pity for once felons have done their time, no public purpose is served by casting them into the outer political darkness. They have already been adequately punished by the courts. This amendment also punishes citizens by denying them the right to vote for a candidate they might admire.
Offenders may be rehabilitated, and indeed, Shepherd says he is flying straight these days. He’s bound to say that, of course, but it is for the voters to assess his veracity. Besides, felons may well possess talents and experience from which our government could benefit. It all goes down the drain as the law now stands.
This is not to say that Shepherd’s record in the Legislature would suggest we have been missing much since his fall from grace. In fact, the highlight of his public career was a bill he introduced that would have made droopy pants illegal.
He was indicted on multiple charges together with an unlicensed broker with whom he split the cash after running checks written for bogus construction bonds through his bank accounts. While charges were pending, Jefferson Parish deputies arrested and briefly jailed Shepherd over a domestic disturbance. His federal bail was canceled, and he was placed under house arrest awaiting trial, but he soon realized the game was up and was allowed to plead guilty to a single count.
All this will no doubt be mentioned in ads if Shepherd is allowed to run, and it would be no great shock if voters decided he is not fit for office. But that should be their call.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.