Turner suit fails to halt election

Judge sends query to state high court

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / February 8, 2011

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A federal judge rejected yesterday Chuck Turner’s bid to halt a special election for the Boston City Council seat vacated when he was thrown out of office for accepting a $1,000 bribe.

Chief US District Judge Mark L. Wolf cleared the way for voters in District 7 to head to the polls next Tuesday, but the two written decisions he issued yesterday did not resolve Turner’s legal saga. Wolf sent two key questions to the state’s highest court, asking whether the City Council had the authority to oust Turner on Dec. 1 from the seat he held for more than a decade.

Turner has no hope of regaining his council seat, Wolf wrote, because a well-established state law would have automatically expelled him from office on Jan. 25, when a judge sentenced him to three years in prison for extortion, lying to the FBI, and perjuring himself at trial. But if the civil lawsuit succeeds, Turner could win seven weeks pay — worth about $11,778 — and serve his former colleagues a measure of political revenge.

“This case is not moot,’’ Wolf wrote in one of the decisions. “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.’’

Wolf will not issue a final decision until he receives a response from the Supreme Judicial Court. For now, voters will be able to choose from among six candidates in the preliminary election to represent District 7, which includes Roxbury, Lower Roxbury, and parts of the Fenway, the South End, and Dorchester. A final election between the two top vote-getters is scheduled for March 15.

“We felt all along we were on solid footing here,’’ said Stephen J. Murphy, the City Council president, adding that Turner’s former staff and the at-large councilors continue to respond to constituent needs. “The quicker we can get someone in here serving District 7 is better for everyone.’’

Turner’s attorney, Chester Darling, said his client was “not that concerned with his back pay’’ but the precedent set by his removal. Turner was the first member in the 100-year history of the council to be thrown out of office under a new parliamentary rule that required a two-thirds vote.

“His concern is that he loved that body. . . . He doesn’t want that nasty procedure left behind,’’ Darling said. “The issue is an abuse of process and an abuse of power.’’

Although Turner had rallied supporters to vote against the people who threw him out, Darling said his client was not seeking payback.

After his arrest, Turner joined his colleagues in adopting the new rule, which outlined a procedure when a councilor is convicted of a felony but did not specify that they be thrown out of office. A jury convicted Turner last October.

A month later, the council voted 11 to 1 to expel Turner. At the time, Boston’s corporation counsel, William F. Sinnott, argued that the body had the authority to oust Turner because the city charter designated the council as “the judge of the election and qualification of its members.’’

In his decision, Wolf wrote that the issue may not be that clear cut. The charter could “reasonably be interpreted,’’ Wolf wrote, to give the council the authority to determine the eligibility of candidates and the outcome of an election, “but not the power to remove a councilor who was . . . duly elected.’’

That answer will be determined by the state’s high court.

“We’re gratified that the court accepted our argument and denied the injunction’’ to stop the election, Sinnott said. “We appreciate Judge Wolf’s thoughtful consideration of the issues, and we’re looking forward to the Supreme Judicial Court’s determination.’’

Wolf wrote that the election should go forward because even if the council overstepped its authority, state law would have removed Turner from office the day he was sentenced to prison.

“Candidates have been campaigning to succeed Turner,’’ Wolf wrote. “Arrangements have been made to conduct the elections. It would be disruptive, and possibly expensive, to reschedule them.

“The citizens of District 7 are now unrepresented on the council because of Turner’s corrupt criminal conduct,’’ Wolf wrote. “Turner deprived his constituents of the honest services of a representative on the council in the past.’’

John Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at