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A question of moral turpitude
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Not long ago I read, with some degree of astonishment, that an ex-convict had qualified to run for an elected office right here in our county. Having learned at least a little something in my 57 years as an American citizen, and as a Georgian, I was amazed for two reasons.

First, I've often wondered why any honest, upstanding, decent person of unquestionable integrity would deign to undertake a run for any elected office in this country. It's a given that the opposition will immediately launch an all out assault on the candidate's character and background, and will seek out every little bit of dirt and sleaze they can possibly find, then trumpet it to every corner of the known Universe.

Why would anyone want to endure those slings and arrows?

Secondly, I wondered what in the world possessed an ex-convict who served time in prison for a sex-related felony involving a child to go through the motions of registering to run for an elected office here in Georgia. Almost all of us have at least a skeleton or two in the closet, but convicted felons have them hanging on the front porch. Did the would-be candidate think no one would notice? Or that the opposition would just politely let it go unnoticed?

Most folks who have finished high school know that the United States Constitution, in Article VI, lists very few qualifications for citizens who wish to run for President, the United States Senate or House of Representatives. Ex-cons cannot be excluded, therefore, from running for those Federal offices. However, that same Federal Constitution steers clear of setting qualifications for all other elected offices, deferring the power for that to the individual states in Article X. Some of these fifty United States of America, notably California, allow ex-convicts to regain their voting privileges, along with the right to run for elected offices.

Georgia is not one of them.

Georgia's Constitution, in Section II, Paragraph III, states that "no person...who has been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude...shall be eligible to hold any office or appointment of honor or trust in this state."

The caveat is a phrase within that paragraph which states an exception, reading "...unless that person's civil rights have been restored and at least ten years have elapsed from the date of the completion of the sentence without a subsequent conviction of another felony involving moral turpitude."

It seems to me then, technically, if the ex-con who qualified to run for office completed his prison sentence more than a decade ago, and if he has not been convicted of a subsequent crime involving moral turpitude in the intervening years, he should be eligible to run for an elected office.

After all, this is America. The guy did wrong. He did a really bad thing. But he subsequently paid his debt to society and jumped through all the hoops our society said he had to jump through to earn a fresh start.

But I'm not a lawyer. I'm just an old guy with an opinion.

When the news of this thing first broke, my curiosity was piqued when I realized that although I'd heard the term "moral turpitude" from the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I was unable to explain to myself exactly what it meant. So I did a little research, which has served only to stir the pot.

Moral turpitude, it turns out, is not a specific criminal act; it is, rather, a category into which almost any crime can fit if it violates a standard of ethics or morality, which our society more or less commonly agrees upon as a definition of decent behavior.

Well, there you go. How in the world do you discern what our society agrees upon as decent behavior? And even if you could, what would you then do? Charge nearly half the country with lewd and indecent behavior, a crime of moral turpitude?

The defining of moral turpitude and crimes along those lines have been historically used chiefly by the U. S. Department of State as criteria for admission or refusal of those teeming masses yearning to breathe free who immigrated to America through legal portals.

And, in the old days down South, the quickest way to run someone out of town was to accuse them of moral turpitude. That's because word travels fast in a small Georgia town, you see. Even if the accusation was unfounded, the victim of the charge would face the ignominy of being shunned for years as they tried to prove their innocence.

As a case in point I hearken back to the late 1950s in my tiny hometown of Greensboro. An older bachelor lawyer was pretty much known to be homosexual, but in the days before "gay" meant anything other than happy, it was not discussed in polite society. Homosexuals did not come out of the closet, so to speak, until the latter decades of the 20th century. In our little town, parents handled the ticklish situation by admonishing their kids to stay away from that older, bachelor lawyer fellow.

And if he were to offer them candy, or in any way entreat them to visit him alone, the kids were to run for home and were to tell their folks at once.

Returning now to the present, I wonder if any candidate for elected office in Georgia has ever announced that they are openly homosexual. If so, would not a challenge to that candidate's eligibility be in order, since the vast and overwhelming majority of American society considers heterosexual behavior the norm? Opinions from the ACLU notwithstanding, would not a candidate for elected office in Georgia, openly professing to be homosexual, be guilty of moral turpitude? And, if so, does it not follow that such a candidate would be ineligible under current Georgia law?

At the very least, it seems to me, a convicted felon who committed a crime, did the time, paid the debt to society, and satisfies all other requirements should be deserving of an opportunity to run for elected office. I'm most likely not going to vote for that candidate, but if he or she has done everything our society has commanded as legal penance for crimes committed, and is willing to undergo what is certain to be scathing scrutiny by the public, should they not be allowed to run?

Hey, I'm not a lawyer. I'm just an old guy with an opinion.

More than 40 crimes in categories ranging from crimes against property to crimes against government to crimes against people fall into the category of moral turpitude. Enforcement at the Federal level includes an incident in March of this year, reported by the Associated Press. British author Sebastian Horsley was refused entry into the United States at Newark International Airport. Customs denied his entry claiming issues of moral turpitude, citing crimes including controlled-substance violations or admission to previous drug addiction. Horsley was placed on a plane and sent back to London.

Recently the Governor of New York resigned after it was revealed that he was involved in acts of moral turpitude. Not too long ago a sitting President of the United States of America, William Jefferson Clinton, was impeached for committing an act of moral turpitude in the Oval Office with a White House intern. And I've lost count of the numbers of public school teachers who have been arrested for crimes of moral turpitude perpetrated by them against the students entrusted to their care.

Over the course of my lifetime, I've watched as America's morals have decayed to the point where it seems now that virtually any kind of decadent, aberrant behavior is acceptable. Vulgar language has infiltrated everyday conversational language, indecent lyrics in songs seem to be the norm, and promiscuity and other lasciviousness seem to be not only featured, but glorified, by American television producers and film makers.

Not too long ago two fairly prominent local families packed up and moved away in a quest to find a better place, a place where decency still exists as it once was defined in our country. I can't blame them at all, as the time we have on the planet is finite. I understand completely the argument that folks have to do what's right for them. When you reach a point where you don't think you can make things better, I reckon it's time to move on.

At the same time, though, I recall the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, wherein some 13 million or so Jews, Gypsies, Russians and other folks were exterminated in Nazi death camps. And from time to time I wonder who was most guilty of moral turpitude. Was it the Nazi soldier gassing innocent civilians as he followed orders from his superiors, or was it the German citizens in the villages surrounding the concentration camps, who knew what was going on and allowed it to continue?

A convicted sex offender qualifies to run for an elected office, and people point their fingers, beat their chests, and cry out loudly that such an outrage must not be allowed.

Yet idly we sit and lament to one another as we watch the steady decline in our country's moral standards. And we do nothing, for fear of hurting someone's feelings, or violating their right to do whatever they think the Constitution says they can.

And so, with regards to crimes of moral turpitude, let me put it to you bluntly: who is most guilty here?

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.