In a moral, if not practical, victory for Chuck Turner, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that while the Boston City Council has the right to pass rules on the fitness of members, it went too far in kicking the convicted Roxbury councilor out after he was convicted but before he got his three-year federal extortion sentence.
In a ruling today, the state's highest court said that procedures for removing elected officials from office need to be set out in laws passed by the state legislature. When councilors realized the state-approved city charter did not set out specific rules for booting convicts from office, they drafted and passed a special rule for the purpose - a rule Turner voted for even as he faced trial. But because that rule was not enshrined in state law, it should never have been enforced:
We take from both the Massachusetts Constitution and the General Laws that the removal or suspension of a public officer requires specific constitutional or legislative authorization. Our Constitution specifies that "officers of the Commonwealth" may be removed from office only by compliance with its specific impeachment provisions set out in Part II, c. 1, § 2, art. 8, of the Massachusetts Constitution. ... "Judicial officers" may only be removed by compliance with the address provisions in Part II, c. 3, art. 1, of the Massachusetts Constitution. ... In G.L. c. 279, § 30, the Legislature has mandated specifically that one who holds public office, including one who holds municipal office, is automatically removed from office only when he or she is sentenced to prison on a felony conviction in State or Federal court.
Turner was convicted in federal court on Oct. 29, 2010, but not sentenced until Jan. 25, 2011. The council voted to expel him on Dec. 1.
The question surrounding the council action became moot once Turner was sentenced - state law provides for automatic expulsion of elected officials after they are sentenced.