New Castle News

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August 18, 2012

John K. Manna: Election rules and felons create confusion in commonwealth

NEW CASTLE — Can we have some consistency here?

Based on two recent court decisions, the answer is apparently no.

Approximately two weeks ago, a York County judge ruled that a York city councilman could keep his post despite his felony convictions.

The councilman, who pleaded guilty to two felony counts of possession with intent to deliver in 1991, was elected to council in November.

Pennsylvania’s constitution bars anyone convicted of infamous crimes from serving in public office. The state Supreme Court has ruled that felony convictions are infamous crimes.

However, the judge ruled that drug crimes are not infamous, saying they are not the same type of crime as embezzlement, bribery or perjury.

The case is similar to one decided in Lawrence County court earlier this year. In his March ruling prohibiting Gary Mitchell from serving on New Castle City Council, Judge John Hodge said common pleas court does not have the authority to circumvent the law “as set forth in the Pennsylvania constitution or the interpretations made thereto by our judicial system.”

Mitchell, who was convicted of two counts of delivery of a controlled substance, both felonies, and misdemeanors in 2002, won election to council in November.

Last week, a Commonwealth Court judge ruled that former Pennsylvania House Speaker Bill DeWeese is ineligible to seek re-election to his seat this November.

DeWeese, convicted in January on five felony counts of public corruption, is serving a 2 1/2 to five-year prison sentence.

Judge Bernard McGinley wrote that DeWeese’s “criminal conduct and conviction have rendered him ineligible to hold public office.”

He went on to say that DeWeese’s prison sentence will span the entire two-year term of the elected position and, if he were to win in November, his convictions would bar him from holding office.

It isn’t clear whether this decision bars DeWeese from running because of his convictions or because he will be in prison during the term of office. Nonetheless, it does strike his name from the ballot.

That wasn’t the case in Lawrence or York counties where the candidates could run for office even though they serve if elected.

Apparently, the Commonwealth Court decision is not precedent-setting, meaning it applies only to the DeWeese case. In other words, convicted felons can still run even if they can’t serve. It makes no sense.

Plus, as the York County decision has shown, there can be different interpretations of the law by the lower courts.

Whether it comes about through legislation or through the courts, there needs to be some consistency. After all, this is the electoral process we’re talking about, and there should be no confusion as to who can run and who can serve.

 

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