Thursday, August 24, 2006

Judge: Ex-felons can vote

By Bob Johnson
The Associated Press
From The Montgomery Advertiser

A Jefferson County judge ordered Wednesday the state of Alabama to allow ex-felons to vote, saying a state law that denies voting rights to felons convicted of crimes of moral turpitude does not identify which crimes fit that definition.

Circuit Court Judge Robert Vance Jr. stayed portions of his order until it could be cleared by the U.S. Justice Department. The federal Voting Rights Act requires that changes in voting law in Alabama be cleared through the Justice Department.

Vance ordered voter registrars in Alabama counties to register ex-felons until "the Alabama Legislature passes, and the governor signs into law, legislation specifically identifying which felonies involve moral turpitude."

The judge's ruling came in a lawsuit filed in Jefferson County by Richard Gooden, who lost his right to vote in 2000 when he was convicted of felony driving under the influence. When Gooden tried to have his voting rights restored he was told that the Alabama secretary of state's office had ordered no felons be registered until the Attorney General Troy King issued an opinion on what crimes do not involve moral turpitude.

Gooden filed his lawsuit through the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York and was represented in Jefferson County by Birmingham attorney Ed Still.

"The judge issued a great order that's going to have beneficial impact on a lot of people in Alabama," Still said.

New York attorney Ryan Paul Haygood of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the court's ruling "recognizes that the right to vote for which so many fought and died can not turn upon the subjective whim of state and local officials."

In his 50-page ruling, Vance said only the Legislature, not the Secretary of State or other state officials, has the right to decide what crimes involve moral turpitude.

Secretary of State Nancy Worley said she is asking the attorney general's office for an opinion on how to interpret the ruling. She said her office has received a conflicting ruling from a federal court judge to use a voter registration form that asks applicants if they have been convicted of a disqualifying felony.

"I think the judge has appropriately remanded this back to the Legislature to determine what is moral turpitude and what is not moral turpitude," Worley said.

Officials at the attorney general's office were reviewing the ruling Wednesday and did not have any immediate comment, spokesman Chris Bence said.

The Alabama Legislature in 1996 passed a law that allowed ex-felons the right to vote if they were convicted of crimes that did not involve moral turpitude.

In 2003, the Legislature passed a bill by Rep. Yvonne Kennedy, D-Mobile, that sets up a process through the state Board of Pardons and Parole to restore the rights to ex-felons convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude. But Still said the problem was that when Gooden and others went to the board to have their rights restored they were told they did not have to go through the process because they had not been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.

But Still said when they went to their local registrars office they were still told they could not register.

State Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, introduced a bill last year that would have automatically restored voting rights to convicted felons upon their release from prison, but it did not pass. Singleton praised Vance's ruling and said he plans to reintroduce his bill next year.

"This is a wonderful victory for people who have been disenfranchised because of the definition of moral turpitude," Singleton said.

Not everyone in the Legislature was happy with the ruling.

"That's absolutely insane and flies in the face of the bill that we passed," said Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, the Republican leader in the House. Hubbard said he thinks registrars should not be able to register any ex-felons until the issue concerning the definition of moral turpitude is resolved.

He said if the decision is not overturned on appeal, "I can guarantee you this will be an issue on part of Republicans to get this straightened out next session."

Mike Hubbard is a VILE man. He better hope he gets his way because if he doesn't that means there will be THOUSANDS of citizens who can vote against him in this election. I am putting my money on Dick Clark to take Hubbard out in this election.

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