The state’s highest court ruled Friday that the Boston City Council overstepped its authority in removing Chuck Turner from office after his bribery conviction.
The ruling does not change Turner’s criminal conviction or the three-year sentence he is serving in a US prison in West Virginia. But the decision does give the fallen councilor a victory in his long legal battle and could make him eligible for an estimated $11,000 in back pay.
The opinion from the Supreme Judicial Court came at the request of US District Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf, who wanted to know whether the City Council had the power to expel Turner from office, a first in the body’s 100-year history. The case now returns to federal court.
“It’s a moral and legal victory,” said Turner’s lawyer, Chester A. Darling, who added, “Whenever a government abuses its authority, someone should push back.”
Council President Stephen J. Murphy rejected the suggestion that the council had abused its authority.
“We were protecting the legitimacy and integrity of the elected office,” Murphy said Friday. “To me, it also sends a signal that the law is flawed.”
Attorneys have begun drafting a change to the city charter that would allow the council to remove convicted felons from office, Murphy said. The measure would need approval from the state Legislature.
A civil rights activist 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 then-state senator Dianne Wilkerson. The City Council initially made moves to expel Turner after his arrest but backed off.
Then, on Oct. 29, 2010, a US 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 Jan. 25, 2011, the day he was sentenced to prison. But the council decided to not wait.
On Dec. 1, 2010, the council voted 11-1 to remove Turner from office, with the lone dissenting vote from Charles C. Yancey. Turner left City Hall the next day and eventually went to prison.
But Turner and 15 constituents filed a civil lawsuit. Wolf rejected Turner’s request to halt a special election to fill the council seat he had held for a decade. But Wolf petitioned the state’s highest court to ask whether the City Council had the authority 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.”Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.