The Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Bryan Olin Dozier/NurPhoto via AP)

The U.S. Supreme Court, more than six months after receiving the case, ruled on Friday it will not hear a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Mississippi provision that places a lifetime voting ban on many people with felony convictions.

The nine-member court had set the Mississippi case for conference, where the justices decide whether to hear a case, 17 times this year. But each time the justices had postponed rendering a decision on whether it would consider the constitutionality of Mississippi’s lifetime felony voting ban, the only one like it in the nation.

The Supreme Court on Friday denied the petition for a writ of certiorari by a vote of 7-2, ending the chances they would take up the appeal.

The case is an appeal of a decision last year by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the provision imposing a lifetime ban on voting for many people convicted of felonies. The lifetime ban was imposed on certain crimes that the framers of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution believed at the time Black people were more likely to commit, the 5th Circuit conceded in upholding the provision.

The Mississippi Center for Justice and others filed the lawsuit currently pending before the Supreme Court on behalf of Mississippians who lost their voting rights after being convicted of felonies.

Mississippi is among a handful of states — fewer than 10 — where people do not regain their voting rights at some point after completing their sentence. Mississippi is the only state where people who lose the right to vote must garner a two-thirds vote of each chamber of the Legislature to regain their suffrage. The Legislature has been reluctant to restore voting rights. No voting rights were restored during the 2023 legislative session. Governors also can restore voting rights, but also have been reluctant to do so on a large scale.

In a dissenting opinion issued on Friday, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote that “constitutional wrongs do not right themselves.”

“With its failure to take action, the Court has missed yet another opportunity to learn from its mistakes,” Jackson wrote. “… the majority’s decision not to take up this matter is doubly unfortunate. We were asked to address this problem 125 years ago in Williams, and declined to do so. And this Court blinks again today … Mississippians can only hope that they will not have to wait another century for a judicial knight-errant.”

Those challenging the lawsuit say the 1890 provision is unconstitutional because it was enacted for a discriminatory purpose, thus having a “racial taint.” State Attorney General Lynn Fitch argued the “racial taint” had been removed because of action in more recent times, and a majority of the 5th Circuit agreed.

In 1950 the Legislature passed a proposal that was approved by voters to remove burglary as one of the disfranchising crimes. And in the 1960s, the Legislature and ultimately the voters approved a provision making murder and rape disenfranchising crimes.

Those changes, the 5th Circuit majority found, removed the “racial taint” from the original 1890 language. But Rob McDuff, an attorney with the Center for Justice, pointed out that those changes were made during an era of intense racial conflict and discrimination in the state. Perhaps more importantly, the changes did not allow Mississippians to vote on whether to remove lifetime bans from voting on people convicted of other felonies.

Or as Court of Appeals Judge James Graves wrote in his dissent, “Mississippians have simply not been given the chance to right the wrongs of its racist origins. And this court … deprives Mississippians of this opportunity by upholding an unconstitutional law enacted for the purpose of discriminating against Black Mississippians on the basis of race.”

Fitch’s office also argued that state commissions pondered changing the felony suffrage provision in the 1980s and opted not to do so, thus removing the racial taint.

Those crimes placed in the constitution where conviction costs a person the right to vote are bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, bigamy and burglary.

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 would still be able to vote — even while incarcerated.

In a statement, McDuff of the Center for Justice said, ““We are extremely disappointed in the Supreme Court’s failure to review the case and eliminate this post-Reconstruction vestige of white supremacy from Mississippi’s constitution and Mississippi’s elections. Now that the federal courts have declined to step it, the Mississippi legislature must step up and launch the process of amending the state constitution to repeal it.”

 Former U.S. Solicitor General Don Verrilli joined the Center for Justice on the felony suffrage case. Other attorneys working with the Center for Justice on the case included former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Fred Banks and civil rights lawyers David Lipman and Armand Derfner.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. on June 30 to reflect breaking news that the Supreme Court issued an order refusing to hear the Mississippi case.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.