Ill. High Court: Ex-felons can't run for city office

February 23, 2007

Just four days before Election Day, the state Supreme Court ruled today that two aldermen who went to prison for corruption cannot run for their old City Council seats and ordered election officials to disregard any votes they receive.

It’s yet another twist in the roller-coaster legal fight over whether convicted felons can run for city offices.

Adding another curve, the order only affects two of the fallen former aldermen who had filed for Tuesday’s election — Ambrosio Medrano, who is seeking to reclaim his 25th Ward seat, and Virgil Jones, hoping for a comeback in the South Side’s 15th Ward.

“There are all kinds of thoughts running through my head right now,” said Medrano, who pleaded guilty in 1996 to accepting bribes. He declined to comment further until a news conference later today.

Jones, who was convicted of taking bribes in 1999, did not immediately return telephone calls.

The top court ruling does not affect two other former aldermen seeking to make comebacks after stints in prison — Wallace Davis Jr., who is running in the 2nd Ward, and Percy Giles, seeking to reclaim his 37th Ward seat, said Tom Leach, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

The objector to Davis’ candidacy dropped his challenge, and Giles never faced an objection based on his past corruption conviction.

“There is no action pending against the other two candidates,” Leach said. “We have no authority to take any action because there is no court order.”

Because the ruling comes at the 11th hour, it’s too late to remove Medrano’s and Jones’ names from the ballot, Leach said. Instead, the board will have to print special notices to voters in those wards that the two men are no longer candidates and then program its central computer to ignore any votes they do receive.

“We’re under the gun on this, and we’ve got to abide by the court order,” Leach said. “What would be hard would be to reprint and reprogram everything at the precinct level. All that is already delivered or on trucks being delivered.”

The ex-aldermen’s candidacies have been in question because the Legislature has barred convicted felons from seeking municipal office, though they can run for state offices such as legislator and governor.

Based on that law, a hearing examiner for the city electoral board recommended Medrano and Giles be stricken from the ballot. But the board rejected that, saying the state law was unconstitutional because it only applied to municipal offices and because convicted felons regained other political privileges, such as the right to vote.

Cook County judges agreed.

But the state’s top court ruled the board’s job is to apply existing laws, not to decide on their constitutionality.

“The Election Board therefore clearly exceeded its authority,” the court ruled.

In its rulings, the Supreme Court ordered that if the two men’s names cannot be removed from ballots and voting machines, the board should just “disregard any votes cast for” them.

The orders were silent on the candidacies of Giles and Davis, so votes for them presumably will be counted, although if either of them win, they might be vulnerable to a court challenge of whether they could actually take office, based on Friday’s orders.

“I think the people who won today are the taxpayers across the state,” said attorney Jack Hagerty of Shefsky & Froelich, who fought to get Medrano off the ballot. He said it does make sense to prohibit felons from running for small local offices where the elections do not draw as much media scrutiny as big statewide offices such as governor.