Republicans declared yet another victory Tuesday in a state House district long held by Democrats after the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a decision to disqualify the Democratic candidate, Jimmie Wilson, and wipe out his victory at the polls.
Wilson, a former state lawmaker who was convicted of selling mortgaged crops and illegal use of farm loans, had argued that a pardon he received from then-President Bill Clinton in 2001 removed any barriers to his potential return to the Legislature. Running against Republican David Tollett, Wilson received more than 52% of the vote in the Nov. 3 general election.
A unanimous decision by the high court, however, held that the pardon did not erase Wilson's disqualification under a provision of the state's constitution barring candidates convicted of crimes involving "deceit, fraud, or false statement."
Wilson, 74, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Tuesday.
The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Dan Kemp, rejected arguments by attorneys for the Democratic Party of Arkansas who asked the court to reverse a nearly century-old precedent from the case State v. Irby, which held that presidential pardons do not restore a candidate's eligibility for office.
"We see no reason to depart from the long-standing precedent established by Irby," Kemp wrote. "Our holding in Irby controls here. Although the term, 'infamous crime,' was not yet defined in 1935, article 5, section 9 [of the Arkansas Constitution] nonetheless prohibited a person convicted of embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery, or other infamous crime from holding public office."
That section of the constitution was amended by voters in 2016 to define "infamous crime" as including any felonies, abuses of office or crimes involving tampering or dishonesty.
Wilson was declared ineligible to run by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce just before the election on Nov. 3. However, that decision was stayed to allow the Supreme Court to review the case. Pierce also ordered local election officials not to certify the results of the race until the justices ruled.
The high court's ruling on Tuesday left Tollett, a former school superintendent, as the only remaining, qualified candidate in the race. Both he and the Republican Party of Arkansas declared victory soon after the decision was handed down.
"I'm honored to be the elected representative of [House] District 12," Tollett said in a brief interview. "I look forward to serving the people of District 12 in all manners moving forward."
Tollett will become the first Republican to represent the district -- which is centered in the Democratic-stronghold of Phillips County -- since Reconstruction, according to state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb.
"Today's unanimous decision written by the Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court makes it clear that Jimmie Wilson is ineligible to hold office," Webb said. "[Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman] Michael John Gray was wrong to defend Mr. Wilson through the court system twice, and he knew it. The Democratic Party tried their best to make this a murky case, but the facts are clear today."
Gray said Tuesday that he was speaking with Democratic attorneys to determine whether or not the party could seek a special election because of Wilson's lead in reported votes.
According to The Associated Press, the results in the race were:
A victory for Republicans in House District 12 would give the GOP 78 or 79 seats in the 100-member House, depending on the outcome of the race in Little Rock's House District 32, where Democrat Ashley Hudson has been certified as the winner but Republicans are contesting the results and seeking a new election.
Gray also defended the party's decision to support Wilson's candidacy, noting that a nominating convention composed of local Democrats chose Wilson in July to fill a vacancy in the race after former state Rep. Chris Richey, D-Helena-West Helena, stepped down to take a job in another area of the state.
"I don't think it was wrong at all to defend the candidate that the people of Phillips County chose and overwhelmingly elected," Gray said.
Prior to that nominating convention, Gray wrote a letter to the delegates informing them of Wilson's past misdemeanor convictions and warning them that Republicans could challenge Wilson's candidacy. Still, the delegates selected Wilson to become the nominee over two other candidates by a 5-3 vote.
Gray said he was not frustrated by the convention's decision, but rather with the way the law was being used to disqualify candidates for minor convictions in their past.
Two judicial candidates were ruled ineligible for office earlier this year under the infamous crime law (though one, Adam Weeks, was returned to the ballot after the Supreme Court ruled that his conviction for using fictitious tags did not necessarily involve deceit). Democrats similarly cited the law to disqualify a Republican candidate in nearby House District 10 in 2016, prior to Gray's tenure as party chairman.
"If you have the right to vote for who should represent you, you should also be able to represent people," Gray said.
CORRECTION: A victory for Republicans in House District 12 would give the GOP 78 or 79 seats, depending on the outcome of the race in Little Rock's House District 32. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect number of seats.