Ford out of Senate chamber, so are reminders she served there

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - While it didn't take long for the state Senate to erase signs that Ophelia Ford had been a member, her lawyers were working on a legal petition to get her back in.

On Thursday, the day after a Republican-controlled Senate voted 26-6 to nullify the election that sent the Memphis Democrat to Nashville, Ford's name was absent from the Senate's voting board and her desk was vacant.

The Senate, citing evidence of improper voting, voided Ford's 13-vote victory over Republican Terry Roland in a special election in September.

A federal judge in Memphis refused Tuesday to block the Senate vote but left open the possibility of reconsidering Ford's efforts to remain in office once lawmakers had made their decision on her fate.

Steven Mulroy, one of Ford's lawyers, said his client was preparing to take advantage of that opportunity.

"We think it is likely that we'll be back in court, but the exact timing, I can't say," Mulroy said Thursday. "But we think it is important to vindicate the rights of the voters of District 29."

Ford, along with several voters from her district, have a lawsuit before Judge Bernice Donald arguing that the Senate is violating their constitutional rights to due process of law.

Mulroy said a new petition would be filed arguing that the Senate failed to follow an order from Donald in February telling senators to take pains to protect those rights.

While the legal form of the petition was still undecided, its aim would be to get Ford reinstated to the Senate, Mulroy said.

A Senate committee, which has investigated the District 29 election since late last year, recommended Ford's ouster after deciding that the election results were "incurably uncertain."

The committee found that 12 illegal ballots were cast in the election and several more were suspect. Two ballots were cast in the names of dead people and others came from felons and people living outside the Senate District, the committee said.

Following Wednesday's vote, Ford vowed to regain her seat. She told her colleagues they could possibly see her as early as next week.* "I will definitely be back here," she said.

Ford had said she might return Thursday and sit in the back of the Senate chamber, but she didn't show. A staff person in her office answered the telephone Thursday but Ford wasn't there.

The only way Ford can return to the Senate floor now, however, is as a guest of another senator, according to the Senate clerk's office.

As for legislation she was backing, the clerk's office said the Senate speaker "will allow other senators to sign on and take them over if they so choose."

Ford, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, contends the move to remove her was motivated by the Republicans' slim 18-15 majority in the Senate, and some lawmakers who voted against unseating her agreed.

But Sen. Diane Black, who voted to oust Ford, said Thursday that the Senate's action was simply to try to prevent similar problems in other elections.

"This is nothing personal with any individual," said the Gallatin Republican. "This is just looking at what happened there and could this happen in other parts of our state."

Now that the seat has been declared vacant, the Republican-majority Shelby County Commission, would be responsible for appointing an interim senator until an election can be held.

With Wednesday's action, Ophelia Ford became the third Ford sibling to leave a seat in the General Assembly. Emmett Ford gave up his House seat after he was convicted of insurance fraud in 1981.

Ford's seat was held by her brother John until last May, when he resigned after his indictment in the Tennessee Waltz public corruption investigation.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)