The Arkansas Supreme Court today upheld a lower court ruling that a presidential pardon on misdemeanor charges dating almost 40 years ago didn’t restore former Rep. Jimmie Wilson’s right to hold public office, specifically state representative.
This clears the way for a Republican, David Tollett, to be elected to the Delta House seat long held by Democrats.
The Republican Party challenged Wilson’s eligibility on account of his conviction of misdemeanor charges of personal use of a federal crop loan made in 1980. The issue had been raised about Wilson during a previous stint in the legislature but was not challenged in court.
Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce ruled on Oct. 26 that Wilson was ineligible. He found that the pardon may have restored Wilson’s civil rights, but it didn’t erase the fact of his conviction of a crime disqualifying him from service under the Arkansas Constitution.
The Supreme Court agreed with this opinion.
Pierce had said the election should proceed and the votes are counted, but the results not certified until the Supreme Court ruled.
Arkansas Republican Party chair Doyle Webb says today’s ruling means Tollett has won the seat unopposed because the only other candidate, Wilson, was ineligible.
Democratic Chair Michael John Gray agreed. But he said he regretted the ruling, which negates the wishes of a large majority of people in the district.
“A man who has a right to choose who can represent him [by voting] should have a right to represent,” Gray said.
The Democratic Party had appealed the ruling. It argued elements of the law had changed since the constitution was written. The court said in Chief Justice Dan Kemp’s opinion:
First, we agree that the federal crimes for which Wilson was convicted underall within the definition of “infamous crime” in article 5, section 9. The judgment in Wilson’s federal criminal case was entered into evidence at the hearing. It shows that he pleaded guilty to two counts of violating section 641 by “converting public money, property[,] or records to personal use” and three counts of violating section 658 by “converting property mortgaged or pledged to farm credit agencies.” By pleading guilty, Wilson admitted to his conduct under these federal statutes. Furthermore, both crimes required the culpable mental state of “knowing.” We held in Wilson v. Neal that although all five counts to which Wilson pleaded guilty were misdemeanors, “these convictions involved dishonesty and a breach of trust.” We likewise have no hesitation holding that the crimes involved “acts of deceit, fraud, or false statement” within article 5, section 9’s definition of “infamous crime.” We therefore affirm the court’s finding that Wilson was convicted of crimes that disqualify him from sitting as a representative pursuant to article 5, section 9 of the Arkansas Constitution.
Second, we agree with the circuit court that Wilson remains disqualified under article 5, section 9 despite his presidential pardon. Appellees cite State v. Irby, 190 Ark. 786, 81 S.W.2d 419 (1935), in which this court held that disqualification from holding public office under article 5, section 9 cannot be removed by a presidential pardon. Appellants urge that we decline to follow Irby because article 5, section 9(b), which defines “infamous crime,”2 had not been added when this court decided Irby. Appellants also claim that the reasoning in Irby is no longer sound. We are unpersuaded by appellants’ arguments.
It’s not relevant, but perhaps interesting, that the Supreme Court has now established that successful completion of a sentence that leads to expungement of a state criminal conviction of a crime of dishonesty, such as a hot check violation, IS sufficient to qualify someone to hold public office. But a presidential pardon is not.