Any felony would prohibit candidate from taking office, experts say

Published: 3/19/2017 10:00 AM
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BY MARK GILGER AND ANDY HEINTZELMAN

THE NEWS-ITEM

SHAMOKIN — Convicted felons can typically get on a ballot for public office in Pennsylvania, but their chances of ever serving are slim, according to two legal experts.

Shamokin has a candidate for city council and one for mayor on the May 16 primary who have been convicted of felonies in Pennsylvania.

It’s not uncommon for felons to get on a ballot because there is no agency that oversees the background of candidates, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania News Media Association. But any state felony charge or any state “crimen falsi” (crime involving lying) would render a candidate ineligible to hold office in Pennsylvania, she said.

The challenge typically originates with the affidavit that every candidate must have notarized, through which they verify that they are “eligible for said office.”

“If you do swear to that (and you’ve had) a felony, it’s false, and subject to challenge,” Melewsky said.

The definition of felony charges as “infamous crimes” has been disputed, but a state Supreme Court ruling from 2011 is key, she said.

‘Infamous crimes’

Pennsylvania law states that candidates convicted of “infamous crimes” can be removed from office. The law says such crimes include forgery, perjury, embezzlement of public monies, bribery and like felonies. A crime is infamous for purposes of Article II, Section 7, of the state constitution if its underlying facts establish a felony, a “crime falsi” offense or a like offense involving the “charge of falsehood that affects the public administration of justice.”

Attorney Frank Garrigan, solicitor for the Northumberland County Board of Elections and Registrations, said a 2000 state Supreme Court decision, which is still in effect, determined that all felonies are considered “infamous crimes.”

Also, Melewsky said the state Supreme Court in 2011 ruled against a convicted felon who challenged that the “infamous crime” definition included all felonies. Former Wrightsville Mayor Steve Rambler’s conviction was for a federal charge the state Superior Court said would have been a misdemeanor under state law. Nonetheless, the court ruled, “Any public officer convicted in a federal court or in the court of any sister state of a felony which falls within general classification of being inconsistent with commonly accepted principles of honesty and decency stands convicted of an infamous crime, so as to disqualify the officer under Pennsylvania Constitution from holding public office.”

The state Supreme Court did not adopt a bright line test however, so felony convictions from federal convictions or convictions in other states must be analyzed using the test enunciated in Rambler, Melewsky noted.

If the convictions were from federal court or another state, the court will look to the nature of the crime, and again, crimen falsi-type crimes would disqualify, even if they wouldn’t amount to a felony under state law, according to Melewsky.

The two Shamokin cases involve Pennsylvania felonies.

Republican Joey Leschinskie, 32, of 518 E. Pine St., Shamokin, who is running for mayor, said he believes he could in fact serve despite a felony conviction based on language in the election code, which he said discusses only “money crimes” while in office as being prohibitive. Besides, he asks, if citizens elect someone, why should a judge overrule what the people want?

The challenge to an individual’s right to hold an office or governmental privilege is called a “quo warranto” action.

If neither the county district attorney nor the state attorney general file a challenge against a convicted felon, a citizen affected by the candidate taking office can file a complaint. A county judge would then hold a hearing to determine if enough evidence exists to remove a convicted felon from office or prevent one from serving in the first place.

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