Andrew Bagley of the Helena World reports that Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce of Little Rock has declared Jimmie Wilson ineligible to serve in the state legislature on account of his federal misdemeanor conviction (since pardoned) for misuse of a federal agricultural loan almost 40 years ago.
An earlier suit to kill Wilson’s candidacy failed for procedural reasons. The Arkansas Republican Party refiled the challenge and got a favorable ruling today, with voting well underway. The Arkansas Constitution prevents service by someone convicted of an infamous crime, or one involving dishonesty or deceit. The lawsuit says court precedent is clear that a pardon doesn’t overcome that provision of the Constitution. Wilson argues that the House of Representatives considered his record years ago and found him eligible to serve. The Democratic Party argues that the controlling precedent, 85 years ago, has changed because it saw a distinction between civil and political privileges. At that time people could be denied the vote on account of criminal records. That’s no longer the case. It should follow now that if a pardon restores a right to vote it should restore a right to hold office. Their brief also draws a distinction between the gubernatorial pardon at issue in 1935 and Wilson’s presidential pardon.
There are wrinkles to be ironed out here, including the likely appeal. Timing is one thing. Can the Republican Party get the Supreme Court to order that votes for Wilson, a lawyer in Helena-West Helena, not be counted before the election or the 10 days after the election before a vote is certified, leaving the Republican candidate unchallenged? Or what if that doesn’t happen, the election is held and Wilson is certified the winner? Would that require another election if he were to eventually be disqualified? I’m trying to find out more.
Wilson, a former legislator, was nominated for the seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Chris Richey. Republicans have hoped the nomination of Wilson, a former legislator, would create an opportunity for a pickup in the district, which includes Phillips County and parts of Arkansas, Desha and Lincoln.
UPDATE: Arkansas Democratic Party Chair Michael John Gray said the party will appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
He said Pierce had ruled that the election should go on and votes could be counted, but he ruled the election should not be certified until the Supreme Court rules. It could well rule Wilson off and leave the Republican as the only eligible candidate, Gray acknowledged.
“We were aware of this when we started this journey,” Gray said. A Democratic convention chose Wilson, knowing his record, after Richey dropped out. It was a certainty that Republicans would challenge him in court. But, said Gray, “It is our job to support the nominee.”
He said he still believed what the party’s legal filings have said: “I feel like if you’re qualified to vote you should be qualified to be elected.”
The immediate question is how quickly the Supreme Court can hear and decide the appeal. In eight days? That would be unusual.
I’ve asked Republican Chair Doyle Webb for comment. He said the question of how quickly he anticipated the Supreme Court would decide would be a question better left to the Democratic Party. (Gee, what if it didn’t get decided until January, when Webb’s wife takes a seat on the court?)