One of my favorite quotes from any Arkansas court case is in a footnote in a per curiam opinion in a domestic case, wherein the husband, who was appealing the circuit court’s decision, was ordered to file a new brief that complied with the Arkansas Supreme Court’s briefing requirements. In footnote 2, the author of the opinion wrote, “Rules are rules for a reason, and they have a purpose.”1
I have been thinking about that quote a lot lately, it seems, because I keep running into candidates for local races who are running for office despite being constitutionally prohibited from doing so because of our old friend, Amendment 95.2 This time, it came up in a conversation with a friend in northwest Arkansas who mentioned that a man named William Harris was running for mayor of Fayetteville, despite having an arson conviction in his past. I looked into it and, sure enough, found this Democrat-Gazette story, which read:
Harris was convicted of arson and imprisoned from 1984-1998, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Harris provided his release form from Oklahoma State Penitentiary to the Washington County Clerk’s Office and signed his affidavit of eligibility to run for office.
A little digging in Oklahoma court records turned up a William Lewis Harris who was convicted of second-degree arson in Oklahoma County, OK, in case number CRF-1983-245 and was sentenced to 25 years in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections for intentionally setting fire to a furniture store and causing $75,000 in damage. This conviction was affirmed on appeal in 1986.
Oddly enough, the Democrat-Gazette report notes, “Arkansas state law says any municipal candidate, ‘must never have been convicted of fraud, embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery or other infamous crime.'” This is a correct statement of the law under Amendment 95, but I fear that it falls one step short of having the information that is most relevant to a reader. Because, as you might recall from the FraSha’ Anderson post, Amendment 95, as enshrined in Article V, section 9, of the Arkansas Constitution, states (emphasis mine):
(a) No person convicted of embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery, or other infamous crime is eligible to the General Assembly or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this state.
(b) As used in this section, “infamous crime” means:
(1) A felony offense;
(2) Abuse of office as defined under Arkansas law;
(3) Tampering as defined under Arkansas law; or
(4) A misdemeanor offense in which the finder of fact was required to find, or the defendant to admit, an act of deceit, fraud, or false statement, including without limitation a misdemeanor offense related to the election process.
Second-degree arson in Oklahoma is certainly a felony, as both Oklahoma law and the length of Harris’s sentence demonstrate. Amendment 95 specifically prohibits someone from holding “any office of trust or profit” if they have been convicted of “a felony offense,” and it does not matter if the felony occurred in Arkansas or in a different state. Moreover, unlike hot checks or other misdemeanors, there is no requirement that the felony have contained an “element of dishonesty;” any felony conviction renders a person ineligible to hold office in Arkansas. The Arkansas Supreme Court has held that this prohibition applies local offices,3 as the prohibition is absolute and “the word ‘any’ is plain and unambiguous.”
Rules are rules for a reason, and they have a purpose. In this case, the purpose is to prohibit someone who has been convicted of a felony from holding elected or appointed office in this state. Inasmuch as William Harris has a felony conviction on his record, Amendment 95 makes it clear that he is absolutely ineligible to run for, or be elected as, mayor of Fayetteville.