Mass. high court rules that Boston City Council overstepped when it removed Chuck Turner

The state’s highest court ruled today that the Boston City Council overstepped its authority when it removed former councilor Chuck Turner from office after his bribery conviction.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruling does not impact Turner’s criminal conviction or the three-year sentence he is serving in a federal prison in West Virginia. But the decision does give Turner a preliminary victory in a civil case and could make him eligible for an estimated $11,000 in back pay.

The case will now return to US District Court, where Turner filed a lawsuit after the City Council voted overwhelmingly to expel him from office, a first in the body’s 100-year history. The federal court had sought the state high court’s opinion on the relevant state law.

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“It’s a moral and legal victory,” said Turner’s lawyer, Chester A. Darling, adding, “Whenever a government abuses its authority, someone should push back.”

City Council President Stephen J. Murphy rejected the suggestion that councilors had abused their authority.

“We were protecting the legitimacy and integrity of the elected office,” Murphy said today. “To me it also sends a signal that the law is flawed and the Legislature should amend the law so someone who has been convicted isn’t serving in elected office.”

The council should amend the city charter, which requires approval by the Legislature, Murphy said.

A civil rights activists and community organizer, Turner first won election in 1999 representing District 7, which includes Roxbury, Lower Roxbury, and parts of the Fenway, the South End, and Dorchester. FBI agents arrested Turner at City Hall in 2008 as part of a corruption sting that also netted Dianne Wilkerson, former state senator. The City Council initially made moves to expel Turner after his arrest but backed off.

Then on Oct. 29, 2010 a federal jury found Turner guilty of accepting a $1,000 bribe and lying about it to the FBI. State law would have automatically removed Turner from office on Jan. 25, 2011, the day he was sentenced to prison. But the City Council did not wait.

On Dec. 1, 2010, the Council voted 11-1 to throw Turner out of office, with the lone opposing vote coming from Councilor Charles C. Yancey. Turner left City Hall the next day and eventually went to prison.

But Turner and 15 constituents sued in federal court. US District Judge Mark L. Wolf rejected Turner’s request to halt a special election to fill the seat he had held for a decade. But Wolf petitioned the Supreme Judicial Court to ask whether the City Council had the authority under state law to oust Turner from office.

“This case is not moot,” Wolf wrote in February 2011. “Turner still seeks damages, including back pay, for the alleged violation of his rights under the United States Constitution that resulted from his expulsion from the council, which he contends violated state law.”