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Voting felons dispute decided
State Supreme Court rules contrary to judge who ordered allowance

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Supreme Court ruled Friday that a Jefferson County judge who had ordered the state to allow ex-felons to vote had exceeded his authority in recasting the case to focus on crimes of "moral turpitude."

The justices set aside the decision of Circuit Court Judge Robert Vance Jr., who last August said a state constitutional amendment that denies voting rights to felons convicted of crimes of moral turpitude does not identify which crimes fit that definition. Vance ruled they should be allowed to vote until the state legislature specifies what crimes apply.

But the state Supreme Court ruled that there was "no evidence indicating that anyone (in this case) has been disfranchised as the result of a decision on the merits applying the definition of moral turpitude."

The case was never about the definition of moral turpitude, the court ruled. On the contrary, the court said, it was "undisputed" that the plaintiffs had been denied the right to register without any concern as to the specific nature of their felonies.

So the issue was moot long before the trial court certified the suit as a class-action, the ruling said.

The trial court "exceeded its authority" when it "recast the character" of the case and got into "forbidden territory of the abstract and hypothetical," the Supreme Court said.

Constitutional ruling

State Attorney General Troy King said he was pleased with the ruling.

"The decision is important because it not only protects the rule of law by prohibiting a judge in Jefferson County from rewriting the state Constitution but also because it makes clear that the registrars should continue to follow the Alabama Constitution as my office said all along," King said in a statement.

The case grew out of former Secretary of State Nancy Worley's order prohibiting all felons from voting, regardless of whether the conviction was for moral turpitude.

Ryan Haygood, associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, who represented Alabama felons in the class-action lawsuit, said Friday's ruling, though a defeat for his side, was an "important victory."

"Now we have a ruling requiring state officials to follow the law and permit eligible felons to vote," he said. He expects the result could be more voting felons.

The plaintiffs included Richard Gooden, who lost his right to vote in 2000 when he was convicted of felony driving under the influence.

Vance had 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 Supreme Court made it clear that county boards of registrars should follow the attorney general's opinion about what does and doesn't constitute moral turpitude.

Birmingham attorney Ed Still, who also brought the suit, said that while it appears his side lost, they actually got what they wanted because the attorney general "agreed with us."

"Even though we lost in terms of the opinion we got, I view this as a victory for those people who have not been registered because of their felony convictions," Still said.

Still said the largest number of felony convictions in Alabama each year are for marijuana possession and multiple DUI offenses. Those people can register to vote under the AG's opinion, Still said.

Those convicted of murder, rape, robbery and the sale of controlled substances are disenfranchised because those crimes involve moral turpitude.

Still said he hopes all county registrars will follow the AG's opinion.

"If we find out there are counties not doing what the attorney general said, we will be ready to sue them again," he 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.

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