LAFAYETTE — David John Merrill can keep his seat on the New Iberia City Council, a state district judge ruled, saying Merrill’s 2003 completion of a drug court program on drug possession charges and having the drug case expunged from his record amounted to an acquittal under Louisiana law.
Having the case expunged “restored unto David Merrill all the rights which were lost or suspended by virtue of his conviction, and he shall now be treated as not having been arrested or convicted,” Judge Gerard B. Wattigny said in court papers, citing state laws.
Wattigny made the ruling Feb. 14.
In August, District Attorney Phil Haney’s office filed a petition to remove Merrill from office. The move followed a 2013 Louisiana Supreme Court decision that spelled out the rules on when convicted felons could run for office and serve on a public body.
“I had a large number of people in my district, white and black, who felt I shouldn’t have to go through this,” Merrill said Wednesday.
Merrill was first elected to represent District 4 in New Iberia in 2008. He ran unopposed in 2012.
Merrill said he thanked God for the judge’s decision and that he’s turned his life around in the years since.
Jacques Cousin, an assistant district attorney in Haney’s office, did not return a call seeking comment. It was unknown Wednesday whether the District Attorney’s Office would appeal the ruling.
The Louisiana Supreme Court in January 2013 ruled that convicted felons can run for office only if they receive a governor’s pardon, or if 15 years have elapsed since the end of a sentence and the date of qualifying for an election.
The high court’s judges made the ruling after reviewing a case out of Baldwin and the language governing elections and felons in the Louisiana Constitution. There, Alderman Tony Gibson was ruled ineligible to hold office because of a 1997 conviction for carnal knowledge of a juvenile.
Gibson’s attorney argued Louisiana’s first-offender pardon, which is automatic, satisfied the constitution’s requirement of a pardon. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling the constitution requires a pardon from a sitting governor.
In Merrill’s case, Wattigny reasoned the 54-year-old did not need a pardon or a 15-year interval to run for office because Louisiana law said expunging the drug possession case from his record was the same as being acquitted by a jury or a judge.
The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling also affected — briefly — the term of elected St. Landry Parish School Board member Quincy Richard Sr.
The St. Landry Parish District Attorney’s Office filed a removal petition against Richard in 2013 because of Richard’s 2004 guilty plea to filing false records — a felony — by purchasing grades and a degree from Southern University.
Richard appealed a district judge’s decision to remove him from his School Board seat despite Richard’s success in having the conviction expunged in 2010.
The appeal became an afterthought after Richard was convicted in August in a federal bribery trial for asking a school superintendent candidate for $5,000 in exchange for Richard’s vote of support. Richard began a 33-month sentence in federal prison March 4.