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Banning felons from running improves governance

Louisiana’s voters should pursue reform lite, and better that they understand why they should.

This fall, the state’s electorate will pass judgment on Act 719 of the 2018 regular session, which prohibits unpardoned felons from running for any elective office until five years have elapsed since completion of sentence. In essence, it serves as a replacement for a similar constitutional standard struck down two years ago over a technicality in its presentation to voters, except that the ban lasted 15 years.

Its detractors generally fall back onto two arguments to defeat it, one of which makes no sense. A case brought by former state legislator Derrick Shepherd, convicted of a felony for activities in office, excised the previous stricture. His lawyer, former state Rep. Robert Garrity, calls the amendment “feel-good” and claims it’s “worthless” that will do nothing.

If so, then why vote against it? If in fact it would accomplish nothing substantive, at least one meritorious reason does exist for voting for it, according to author state Sen. Conrad Appel: the symbolic value that connotes an aspirational quality of good character in elected officials.

The other reason to oppose, as Garrity elucidates, is that it deprives voters of the full range of potential options. If a felon wants to run, so this view goes, let the people decide, warts on a candidate and all. As a corollary, he notes that if a felon reenters the community before sentence completion, that person could spend several years as a law-abiding, productive citizen before becoming eligible to run as a result of the amendment, an end-product of needless delay he declares demonstrates that legislators “are the poster children for hypocrisy.”

(A trait perhaps Garrity knows all too well illuminated by his justification on this issue, for as a lawyer he has found himself on the receiving end of punishment for ethical lapses. In 2014, the Louisiana Supreme Court suspended his law license for a year, although deferring that provided Garrity complete probation, for comingling his and client funds without a reasonable accounting to the client.)

This line of reasoning pulls at the string of democratic impulses, and in isolation could prevail over the symbolism argument. But both miss the main rationale for the measure: it deters those who might use an office for unscrupulous reasons.

I know it’s super hard to believe, but some people go into politics not out of a sense of public service and/or because they want to see good policy made, but to enrich themselves and others. People who think this way likely commit more felonies in other life pursuits than those who don’t, so a prior conviction may serve as a proxy for filtering out these individuals. Further, those in office tempted to abuse their position would see this measure as a disincentive to acting that way, knowing that if caught not only do they lose access to their current power, but also they can’t regain it or something like it for many years to come.

In short, having this provision reduces the chances for corruption in office. Keep in mind as well the amendment also would prohibit felons currently serving a sentence from qualifying, as that got tossed also via Shepherd’s suit. Does the state really want to send the message that it doesn’t disapprove of people imprisoned for serious crimes, including those related to public trust, running for public office? And think such people don’t bring greater risk of misbehavior if elected?

Simply, a vote for this amendment (designated as #1) encourages more honest governance, overriding any notion that it attenuates democratic choice, and keeps felons serving sentences out of office. It may not be the lifetime ban some like Appel want or the prior 15-year version, but it is better than nothing.

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