The decade's most triggering comedy
A federal appeals court ruled against Mississippi’s permanent voting ban for certain felons, going against Supreme Court precedent in doing so.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the Mississippi Constitution’s lifetime voting ban for felons convicted of certain crimes violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Mississippi Constitution revokes an individual’s right to vote permanently if they receive a felony conviction for crimes including arson, bigamy, bribery, embezzlement, forgery, murder, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, rape, or theft, as well as those crimes the Mississippi attorney general determines fall under those explicit categories, such as armed robbery and timber larceny.
The case decided on by the court last month, Hopkins v. Hosemann, was initiated by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the law firm Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett in 2018.
Judge James Dennis ruled that Mississippi’s continuation of its lifetime ban on certain felons went against progress by “bucking a clear and consistent trend” in the country modeled by the 35 states and the District of Columbia that gave up permanent felon voting bans over the years.
Dennis further declared that Mississippi’s permanent ban “serves no legitimate penological purpose” and thwarts proper rehabilitation.
“By severing former offenders from the body politic forever, [Mississippi] ensures that they will never be fully rehabilitated, continues to punish them beyond the term their culpability requires, and serves no protective function to society,” stated Dennis. “It is thus a cruel and unusual punishment.”
Judge Edith Jones countered in a dissenting opinion that the majority ruling itself contradicted the Constitution and reflected judicial activism.
Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment allows states to deprive citizens of the right to vote for either “participation in rebellion, or other crime.” Jones declared that this provision expressly allows for lifetime voting bans for felons.
“The carve-out reflects a long tradition in this country, and before that, in British law, and before that, in the Western world,” said Jones. “This tradition can be summed up in Lockean terms: if a person breaks a law, he has forfeited the right to participate in making them.”
Jones also cited the Supreme Court precedent set in the 1974 case Richardson v. Ramirez, which determined that felon voting bans don’t violate the Equal Protection Clause. In that case, the court ruled that the question of handling voting rights for felons should be hashed out in a legislative forum, and that it wasn’t for their court to “choose one set of values over another.”
“[G]o and convince the state legislatures. Do the hard work of persuading your fellow citizens that the law should change,” said Jones. “[T]he court turns that advice on its head. No need to change the law through a laborious political process. The court will do it for you, so long as you rely on the Due Process Clause, rather than the Equal Protection Clause.”
The five felons who sued for the right to vote were Dennis Hopkins, Herman Parker, Walter Wayne Kuhn Jr, Bryon Demond Coleman, Jon O’Neal, and Earnest Willhite. Hopkins, Parker, Kuhn, and Willhite were convicted of grand larceny; Coleman was convicted of receiving stolen property; and O’Neal was convicted of second degree arson. All have completed their sentences.
Mississippi does offer a slim chance for voting rights restoration: the legislature may pass a bill to restore a particular individual’s voting rights, referred to as a “suffrage bill.”
In response to the ruling, Mississippi requested an en banc rehearing. Court of appeals hearings normally consist of three justices; with this request, all justices of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would hear the case.