The Indiana Supreme Court hesitantly answered Thursday a certified question from the federal court as to whether misdemeanor battery is an “infamous crime” under Article II, Section 8 of the Indiana Constitution.
In David R. Snyder v. J. Bradley King and Trent Deckard, in their Official Capacities as Co-Directors of the Indiana Election Division; and Linda Silcott and Pam Brunette, No. 94S00-1101-CQ-50, David Snyder filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Indiana, alleging violations of the National Voter Registration Act and other federal laws, as well as the Infamous Crimes Clause of the Indiana Constitution, which gives the General Assembly power to disenfranchise anyone convicted of an “infamous crime.” Snyder was convicted of Class A misdemeanor battery and informed by the St. Joseph County Board of Voter Registration that his registration had been canceled in accordance with state law. The General Assembly has enacted statutes under which a person convicted of a crime and sentenced to an executed term of imprisonment cannot vote while incarcerated. After his release, he never attempted to re-register as he is allowed and instead filed a lawsuit.
The justices took U.S. Judge William Lawrence’s certified question and reframed it as whether misdemeanor battery is an “infamous crime” under Article II, Section 8 of the Indiana Constitution, and if not, whether cancellation of Snyder’s voter registration violated the Indiana Constitution.
In the 30-page opinion, Justice Frank Sullivan explored the history of infamous crimes and previous caselaw to determine that Snyder’s conviction isn’t considered “infamous” under the Infamous Crimes Clause. The justices determined that whether a crime is infamous for purposes of the clause depends not on the nature of the punishment, but on the nature of the crime itself. They refused to make a bright-line rule that all misdemeanors would not fall under the Infamous Crimes Clause.
“We hold that an infamous crime is one involving an affront to democratic governance or the public administration of justice such that there is a reasonable probability that a person convicted of such a crime poses a threat to the integrity of elections,” wrote Sullivan. “An infamous crime may include some felonies and some misdemeanors, but crimes marked by gross moral turpitude alone are not sufficient to render a crime infamous for purposes of the Infamous Crimes Clause.”
The justices held that the Indiana Constitution wasn’t violated when Snyder was not allowed to vote during his incarceration.
“We hold that the Indiana General Assembly has authority under its general police power to disenfranchise persons incarcerated upon conviction of a crime, so long as the disenfranchisement lasts only for the duration of incarceration. That the statute cites the Infamous Crimes Clause as the basis for its enactment, instead of the general police power, does not render it invalid. This language in no way affects the purpose or effect of the statute, and we will not invalidate an otherwise constitutional statute merely because it includes an unnecessary statement of authority,” he wrote.
Sullivan also noted that the “troubling posture” of the case warranted further comment about addressing an issue of state constitutional law in the context of a certified question. He pointed out that Snyder filed his Section 1983 claim in federal court, which depends in large part on an alleged violation of state constitutional law. State courts have concurrent jurisdiction with federal courts over these claims, but by filing in the federal court and asking that Lawrence certify the question to the Indiana Supreme Court, Snyder has “successfully circumvented the normal course of litigation in Indiana courts,” wrote Sullivan.
The high court cautioned future litigants to be aware of the pitfalls of certified questions when deciding whether to proceed in state court or in federal court.