Can Mississippi permanently strip felons of voting rights? 19 federal judges will hear the case

NEW ORLEANS — Nineteen federal appellate judges are scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday on whether Mississippi can continue to permanently strip voting rights from people convicted of certain felonies, including nonviolent crimes for which they have served a complete sentence.

The outcome of the case will likely determine whether tens of thousands of people win back the right to vote. An immediate decision is not expected.

Criminal justice advocates won a major victory last August when a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban violates the Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment. But the full 17-member circuit court vacated that ruling weeks later and scheduled Tuesday’s hearing.

Attorneys for the state argue that the voting ban is a “nonpunitive voting regulation” and that, even if it did constitute punishment, it isn’t cruel and unusual.

The court’s 17 full-time active judges are expected to hear arguments, along with two senior-status part-time judges who sat on the panel that ruled against the ban in August.

Under the Mississippi Constitution, people convicted of 10 specific felonies, including bribery, theft and arson, lose the right to vote. Under a previous state attorney general, the list was expanded to 22 crimes, including timber larceny and carjacking.

To have their voting rights restored, people convicted of any of the crimes must get a pardon from the governor or persuade lawmakers to pass individual bills just for them with two-thirds approval. Lawmakers in recent years have passed few of those bills, and they passed none in 2023.

“Mississippi stands as an outlier among its sister states, bucking a clear and consistent trend in our Nation against permanent disenfranchisement,” Senior Judge James Dennis wrote in the August opinion, joined by Senior Judge Carolyn Dineen King. Both judges were nominated to the court by Democratic presidents — King by Jimmy Carter and Dennis by Bill Clinton.

Also on the panel was Judge Edith Jones, still on full-time status nearly 40 years after she was nominated to the court by Republican President Ronald Reagan. In a dissent to the August ruling, Jones cited a previous Supreme Court ruling regarding felons’ disenfranchisement, saying it is up to legislatures to decide such matters.

Tuesday’s hearing will include Jones and 16 other full-time members of the court. King and Dennis will also take part because they were members of the original ruling panel. The 5th Circuit is one of the most conservative circuit appeals courts, with 12 of its full-time posts filled by nominees of Republican presidents.

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