Power to oust Turner at issue

Lawsuit may go to state courts

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / January 16, 2011

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The 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, said Massachusetts’ top federal judge.

US District Judge Mark L. Wolf ordered lawyers representing Turner and the city to submit their recommendations as to where the case should be decided by noon Friday.

Wolf, who has a reputation as a methodical judge, 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, issued Friday. “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.

Turner, first elected in 1999, has said that if he is not imprisoned later this month, he should be allowed to finish his term, which expires in December. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Wolf has asked both sides to clarify their positions on whether a new case should be brought before the state court, or, in an effort to speed up the resolution, whether he should send a question to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and make a determination himself.

Yesterday Turner’s lawyer, Chester Darling, said he hopes the matter will be dealt with swiftly in federal court.

“The election is hanging. I’d like it resolved by Tuesday, but that’s not going to happen,’’ Darling said. “The judge had legitimate questions that have to be answered. He wants to be precise, and I have to do my homework. I’ve got to hit the law books.’’

Michael P. Ross, the former City Council president who oversaw Turner’s ouster, declined to comment. “Out of respect for the court, I wouldn’t want to publicly comment on anything before the court,’’ he said.

Ross has previously stated that the council was on solid legal footing and was cautious and deliberate as it moved forward in uncharted territory.

Dot Joyce, spokeswoman for the mayor, said she could not comment on pending litigation.

Turner’s is the first expulsion from the City Council in its 100-year history.

Jonathan Saltzman and Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at