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Alabama Court Bans Felon Disenfranchisement Until Legislature Defines Moral Turpitude Crimes

Alabama’s Jefferson County Circuit Court has held that Alabama’s Constitution permissibly disenfranchises felons convicted of crimes of moral turpitude, but the absence of legislation defining moral turpitude prevents any felon from being disenfranchised.

Before the court was a class action brought by convicted felons that were being refused registration to vote. Their suit contended that Amendment 576 to the Alabama Constitution in 1996 was being interpreted to bar all felons—and not just those convicted of crimes of moral turpitude—from registering to vote.

What state officials were doing was giving felons the bureaucratic shuffle to avoid registering them. The Jefferson County Registrar had a practice of denying the voting application of every person convicted of a felony without determining if it involved a crime of moral turpitude, as defined by the courts.

This required the felon to apply to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles for a Certificate of Eligibility. That Board, however, refused to accept applications from persons convicted of crimes not involving “moral turpitude.” After the Alabama Attorney General issued a list of crimes not involving moral turpitude, the Alabama Secretary of State advised Registrars to continue their long-standing practices in registration.

The court, in reviewing the merits, found that the “purity of the ballot box” rationale asserted by defendants is nothing more than a contrived rationalization to cover up efforts to prevent black citizens from voting, as poll taxes and literacy tests once did, and it may not be regarded as a legitimate basis for disenfranchising felons. A rational or legitimate state interest is served by disenfranchising convicted felons as a form of punishment for the commission of certain crimes.

The court held that any exercise it made to decide which crimes involve moral turpitude would “involve a usurpation of that power entrusted exclusively to the legislature.” While the court is prohibited from designating crimes for which disenfranchisement may be imposed as punishment, “so too are the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, county boards of registrars and county attorneys precluded from making such determinations—for any such governmental official or agency to do so would usurp the role our of legislature to declare, by duly enacted legislation, when this punishment is properly imposed.”

The definition of “moral turpitude is an elusive, vague, and troublesome concept in the law, incapable of precise definition; such is evidenced by the myriad of definitions and interpretations in judicial definitions,” the court said. The court then cited decisions that exhibited contrary views on the same or similar crimes.

The court entered an order prohibiting the defendant state and county officials from denying the right to vote “solely by virtue of a prior felony conviction.” Until the legislature defines crimes of moral turpitude, no interference “with a citizen’s registration because of any criminal conviction” may occur. The court also awarded attorneys Edward Stull and Ryan Haygood $36,645 and $29,379, respectively, for attorney’s fees and expenses. See: Gooden v. Woorley, Alabama Jefferson County Circuit Court, Case No: CV-2005-5778-RSV.

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Related legal case

Gooden v. Woorley