DENVER – Today, ACLU of Colorado sued the City of Aurora for blocking a candidate with a prior felony conviction from running for public office. Candice Bailey, an Aurora resident and community leader for racial justice, intends to run for an at-large position on the Aurora City Council in the November 2021 municipal election. But the Aurora City Charter and City Code forbid her from being a candidate or holding public office solely based on her past conviction.
“A city has no legitimate business barring someone from running for office simply because they have a past felony conviction,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “The Colorado Constitution, as well as Colorado statutes, make it clear that persons who have been convicted of a felony are restored to their full rights of citizenship, including the right to run for public office, when they have completed their sentence.”
To run for municipal office in Aurora, the Aurora City Charter and the Aurora City Code hold that all candidates must meet the following requirements:
- a) be a registered elector of Aurora
- b) be a United States citizen
- c) be a resident of the City for at least a year before the date of the election
- d) be 21 years of age or older before the date of the election
- e) have no felony convictions
Ms. Bailey meets all requirements to run for elected office in Aurora, except one. In 1999, when Ms. Bailey was 22 years old, she pled guilty to second degree assault, a class 4 felony. As a result of that conviction, Ms. Bailey spent approximately three years in prison. She successfully completed her full term of imprisonment and all the requirements of her sentence. Pursuant to the Colorado Constitution, Ms. Bailey automatically regained her “full rights of citizenship,” including the right to run for office.
“The mistakes of your life shouldn’t stop you from living life to the fullest or being of service,” Bailey said. “This is not just about me, but about making sure that all future candidates with felony convictions won’t face the same barrier I have, and ultimately, for voters to decide who they want to represent their communities.”
The Colorado Supreme Court has characterized the right to run for office as “fundamental,” which means that the City must demonstrate an especially compelling justification for refusing to allow the voters to make the decision whether to elect Ms. Bailey.
The ACLU of Colorado confronted a similar issue in 2001, with a demand letter arguing that a recently-enacted Colorado Springs ordinance unconstitutionally barred persons with felony convictions from running for office. The city council repealed the ordinance. A similar resolution is not possible in Aurora, because the challenged prohibition appears in the City Charter itself.
Because of racial bias that has operated at every level of the criminal justice system, Black and Brown communities face disproportionate barriers based on past felony convictions.
“The Aurora laws we challenge today represent arbitrary and unjustifiable discrimination, particularly against people of color everywhere,” Silverstein said. “These provisions also violate the rights of Aurora residents, who should be free to choose the candidates they believe will be their best representatives. These biased barriers deprive the voters of that choice,” Silverstein said.
Today’s lawsuit was filed in Arapahoe County District Court. ACLU of Colorado is asking the Court to rule that 1) the challenged Aurora provisions violate the state Constitution and state statutes; and 2) that Aurora cannot rely on the challenged provisions to deny Ms. Bailey the right to run for public office. Because candidate petitions must be filed in August, Ms. Bailey’s attorneys are also requesting an expedited hearing. Ms. Bailey is represented by Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Senior Staff Attorney Sara Neel, and ACLU cooperating attorney Edward Ramey, of Tierney Lawrence LLC.
The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.