The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts’ top federal judge, Mark Wolf, has said that Boston City Council’s authority to oust Chuck Turner from office last month following the councilor’s conviction for accepting a bribe is legally uncertain, and Turner’s lawsuit to regain his seat might be turned over to the state courts.
Wolf ordered lawyers representing Turner and the city to submit their recommendations as to where the case should be decided by noon Friday.
Wolf is treading carefully because he said the question of whether the council has the legal authority to remove an incumbent has never before been decided in Massachusetts.
“This case involves issues that are fundamental to our federal system of government and, indeed, our democracy,” Wolf wrote in his decision. “Respect for the role and responsibilities of the state generally make it most appropriate for state courts, rather than federal courts, to decide uncertain issues of state law, particularly if they relate to state or local elections.”
A timely decision is crucial because special elections to fill Turner’s seat have been scheduled for Feb. 15 and March 15.
Turner, convicted in October for taking a $1,000 bribe from a Roxbury businessman seeking a liquor license from the city, is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 25. If he is sent to prison, he would automatically be removed from office.
But the City Council — citing new rules adopted following Turner’s indictment that permit them to remove a councilor for “unbecoming conduct” by a two-thirds vote — had expelled him in December.
“It appears that the council’s authority to remove Turner before he is sentenced is uncertain,” Wolf wrote.
Last Monday, Turner and some of his constituents sought an injunction preventing the special elections and restoring him to his seat on the council, arguing that state law does not give the City Council the authority to remove him.
Turner had filed a lawsuit in December arguing that the council violated his rights when it expelled him. Fifteen of his constituents joined in the suit, contending they are disenfranchised because they no longer have district representation on the council.