Federal Appeals Court Upholds Mississippi Law That Restricts Certain Felons From Voting

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Mississippi Law That Restricts Certain Felons From Voting
The state flag flies over the Mississippi State Capitol building in Jackson, Miss., on June 29, 2020. (Rory Doyle/AFP via Getty Images)

A federal appeals court upheld a law in Mississippi that bars certain convicted felons from voting in the state.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 10–7 decision on Aug. 24 to uphold the law after the Mississippi Center for Justice sued on behalf of two black men in the state.

The attorney for the men argued that Section 241 of the Mississippi Constitution, which lays out the prerequisites to be eligible to vote in the state, violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The black men—Roy Harness and Kamal Karriem—had lost their right to vote after they were convicted of two of the eight felonies that were included in Section 241 of the Mississippi Constitution when it was first created in 1890, which restricts voting based on such felonies. Harness was convicted of forgery, and Karriem was convicted of embezzlement.

Their attorney, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., argued in September 2021 that authors of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution had racist intent when they included the eight felonies on the list, alleging that the crimes on the list were chosen because they thought those would be more likely to be committed by black people. He argued that the voting restriction based on the eight felonies should be ruled unconstitutional.

The current version of Section 241 says that a person who “has never been convicted of murder, rape, bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy,” among other requirements, is qualified to be an elector in the state. The felonies of rape and murder had been added to Section 241 in an amendment in 1968.

Revised Through Amendments

Attorneys representing the state of Mississippi said that the amendments over the years, which also included dropping burglary from the list of disenfranchising crimes in 1950, “cured any discriminatory taint on the original provision.”

In the case, the plaintiffs did not challenge the disenfranchisement of people convicted of murder or rape.

The majority opinion said that “It is uncontroverted that the state constitutional convention was steeped in racism and that ‘the state was motivated by a desire to discriminate against blacks’ when the 1890 constitution was adopted,” but that the “plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of showing that the current version of Section 241 was motivated by discriminatory intent.”

“In addition, Mississippi has conclusively shown that any taint associated with Section 241 has been cured,” the judges noted.

“After careful consideration of the record and applicable precedents, we reconfirm that Section 241 in its current form does not violate the Equal Protection Clause.”

A dissent from Judge James Graves said that the 1890 provision “was expressly aimed at preventing Black Mississippians from voting” and that the majority had upheld the provision by concluding “that a virtually all-white electorate and
legislature, otherwise engaged in massive and violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, ‘cleansed’ that provision in 1968.”

Supreme Court Appeal

Attorney Rob McDuff, with the Mississippi Center for Justice, which had brought the lawsuit, said the center will seek for the ruling to be overturned via a request to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This provision was a part of the 1890 plan to take the vote away from Black people who had attained it in the wake of the civil war,” McDuff, who is the director of the Impact Litigation Project at the center, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals is allowing it to remain in place despite its racist origins. Despite this setback, we will continue this battle and seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court.”

To regain voting rights in Mississippi, a person convicted of a disenfranchising crime must receive a governor’s pardon or must win permission from two-thirds of the state House and Senate. Legislators in recent years have passed a small number of bills to restore voting rights.

Federal lawsuits were filed in Mississippi in 2017 and 2018 seeking automatic restoration of voting rights for people who had finished serving sentences for disenfranchising crimes. The case decided on Aug. 24 is from the lawsuit filed in 2017.

A panel of 5th Circuit judges heard arguments in December 2019 from the other case, which makes different arguments. That panel has not issued a ruling.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times