Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch is appealing a 5th Circuit Court decision that ruled a state law barring those convicted of certain felonies from voting for life as unconstitutional.
Approximately 30,000 formerly incarcerated residents were estimated to have their voting rights restored following the August 4 ruling. Mississippians convicted of any one of 22 felonies are prohibited from voting, even after completing their sentences and any parole or probationary periods. That places the state’s rate of residents barred from voting at more than three times the national average.
But only weeks after the three judge panel of the Court ruled the law -- section 241 of Mississippi's post-reconstruction, 1890 constitution -- was cruel and unusual punishment and in violation of the Eighth Amendment, lawyers representing the state said the change would "inflict profound damage and widespread confusion.”
The office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch did not respond to several requests for comment.
In an at times scathing ruling, senior 5th Circuit Court judges James Dennis and Carolyn Dineen King said Mississippi “stands as an outlier among its sister states, bucking a clear and consistent trend in our Nation against permanent disenfranchisement,” and that keeping the law on the books “ensures they will never be fully rehabilitated… and serves no protective function to society.”
A person can have their voting rights restored either by action of the governor or the approval of two-thirds of the legislature, but those instances are few and far between.
Veronica Bilbo was previously convicted of a qualifying felony and has been released -- but barred from voting -- for four years.
“It’s what we think of as a fundamental right as a citizen, and then to have that taken away when you’ve done your time, you’ve been productive, you haven’t had zero recidivism. As a Black woman, knowing the price that was paid for us to be able to go and vote, then to find out we can’t. It’s like eternal punishment," she said.
In 1974, the last time the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutional standing of such laws, 32 states had them. Today, the number is less than half that.
“That’s, frankly, very much the argument we made to the court," said John Youngwood, whorepresented 6 Mississippians who'd had their voting rights stripped. “The last time the supreme court had a case on this issue the status of the laws in the country were very, very different. The vast majority of states wouldn’t permit a former felon to vote. There is now a growing consensus and a firm consensus in the country that forbidding people to vote for the rest of their lives for a crime they commit when they’re very young is not appropriate.”
For their part, the State of Mississippi has requested the court hear their appeal en banc -- or through the entirety of the 5th Circuit Court itself.
The earlier three-judge panel featured two democratic nominees — but the full court is often thought of as one of the most conservative in the country, with 12 of 16 active judges nominated by Republican Presidents. That has cast doubt over the ruling’s future.