NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The Fifth Circuit heard arguments Tuesday in a challenge to a Mississippi law that permanently blocks certain felons from voting unless they can get their rights restored through a process their attorney says is basically nonexistent.
The plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Youngwood told the judges that the state’s permanent disenfranchisement law is preventing 29,000 Mississippians who have already served their sentences from voting.
The state procedure to restore voting rights is known as a legislative “suffrage” process, through which a felon is either pardoned by the governor or the Legislature passes individual bills for them with two-thirds approval. But Youngwood said in the past six years, only 18 people convicted of felonies have had their voting rights restored.
“That is effectively zero,” Youngwood told the Fifth Circuit panel Tuesday.
Six convicted felons in Mississippi who have already served their sentences are asking to have their voting rights restored through their federal class action.
They argued in the March 2018 complaint that the state’s voting laws “ensure that, with extremely limited and arbitrary exceptions, a citizen convicted in Mississippi state court of a disenfranchising felony will never again vote in the state, no matter how minor the underlying crime or how long the citizen may live after sentence completion.”
Among the 20-some felonies that keep people from voting in Mississippi are murder, forgery, bigamy, larceny and carjacking.
The American Probation and Parole Association, which supports the restoration of voting rights, said in court documents backing the plaintiffs that the list of disenfranchising felonies is problematic.
“For every crime on the list there is a similar or even worse crime not on the list. Check fraud means permanent disenfranchisement. But credit card fraud carries no similar penalty,” the group argued.
Lead plaintiff Dennis Hopkins lives in Marshall County with his wife and eight kids. He owns a towing business, founded a local peewee football team and coaches softball and baseball. He is not eligible to vote in Mississippi after being convicted in 1998 of grand larceny, which under state law means he was found guilty of stealing an amount over $500. Since completing his sentence over 17 years ago, Hopkins has not been convicted of any other crimes.
“The government is telling us — you don’t vote, so you don’t matter,” Hopkins is quoted as saying in his federal class action. “I haven’t gotten in trouble for 20 years, but I still can’t cast my vote for my children’s future. I feel like a branded man.”
U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III dismissed most of the lawsuit in August, prompting an appeal to the Fifth Circuit.
Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Jones, a Ronald Reagan appointee, asked Youngwood many questions Tuesday, showing what appeared to be stark disagreement with the arguments presented in the case.
In particular, Jones appeared to take issue with Youngwood’s arguments that keeping felons from voting is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that the court should revisit a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the ability of states to bar convicted felons from voting.
The plaintiffs further argue that the voting rights restoration process violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause because it was intended to keep African-Americans from voting and still disproportionately affects them today.
But Mississippi says the plaintiffs are unable to prove “any present-day discriminatory effects” and the secretary of state’s office that oversees elections doesn’t have a role in restoring the right to vote and was therefore wrongly sued.
“There is no question that the U.S. Constitution expressly approves the right of the state to disenfranchise felons – including permanently,” the state argued in court documents.
Jones appeared to echo that belief in some of her comments Tuesday.
Youngwood countered that in the 50 years since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Richardson v. Ramirez, 47 states have since decided on their own that permanently revoking the voting rights of felons is wrong.
Only Mississippi, Kentucky and Iowa permanently revoke a felon’s right to vote. On the other side, Vermont and Maine go so far as to allow prisoners to vote while incarcerated, Youngwood said.
“Just for the sake of rhetoric, are we going to decriminalize marijuana just because several states have?” Jones asked, calling Youngwood’s argument absurd.
Attorney Krissy Nobile argued on behalf of the state in Tuesday’s hearing.
“Disenfranchisement has always been considered a collateral effect to breaking the law,” Nobile said.
During a press conference held outside the Fifth Court courthouse after the hearing, Hopkins said he is approaching the issue as a human being.
“We’re here to get our rights back,” Hopkins said. “Don’t ask me to pay my taxes and not have my vote count… because my voice needs to be heard.”
“We are human beings,” he added. “We deserve our right to be here.”
Jones was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Carolyn Dineen King, a Jimmy Carter appointee, and James L. Dennis, appointed by Bill Clinton.
The judges did not say when they will issue a ruling in the case.