The full U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments Wednesday morning from its federal courthouse in New Orleans on whether Mississippi’s lifetime ban on voting for people convicted of certain felonies is constitutional.
A ruling by the federal panel overturning the Jim Crow-era provisions of the state Constitution could restore the voting rights to tens of thousands of Mississippians “who’ve been locked out of the democratic process for life even after completing their criminal sentences and returning to their communities,” said Kevin Pallasch of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Both the SPLC and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed separate lawsuits challenging Mississippi’s felony voting restrictions, which were placed in the state’s 1890s’ Constitution to try to disenfranchise African Americans, writers of the Constitution said at the time.
Earlier this year a three judge panel of the 5th Circuit rejected the arguments of the consolidated lawsuits against the state. But the case was revived when the full panel agreed to hear it.
In the 1890s, the Mississippi Supreme Court said the disfranchisement of felons was placed in the Constitution “to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race” by targeting “the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.” Rob McDuff, an attorney with the Center for Justice, said the provision’s intent was the same as the poll tax, the literacy test and other Jim Crow-era provisions that sought to prevent African Americans from voting.
Those crimes placed in the Constitution where conviction would cost a person the right to vote were bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, bigamy and burglary. Those were crimes that the 1890 framers believed African Americans were more likely to commit.
Under the original language of the Constitution, a person could be convicted of cattle rustling and lose the right to vote, but those convicted of murder or rape and still be able to vote — even while incarcerated.
In 1968, the crimes of murder and rape were added as disenfranchising crimes. But even today, a person could be convicted of writing a bad check and lose the right to vote, but be a major drug kingpin locked up in prison and still vote. The lawsuit does not seek to overturn the voting ban for those convicted of murder or rape.
Under the Mississippi Constitution, a person who loses his voting rights because of a felony conviction cannot have them restored without a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature or by a gubernatorial pardon. The Legislature has been reluctant to restore those rights.
It is not clear when the full panel will rule after the oral arguments.
The case against the state will be argued by former U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli.