ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the state’s ban on voting for people serving felony sentences Monday morning, disappointing civil rights and racial justice organizations who argued the restriction contradicts the state’s constitutional guarantee of voting rights.
Judge Matthew Johnson, appointed by former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty in 2008, penned an opinion detailing the court’s findings. In it, Johnson wrote that the ability of the state to cut off felons’ voting rights as part of their sentence was baked into its constitution, and that the fact that four plaintiffs were out of prison on probation or supervised release did not mean their civil rights had been violated or needed to be restored.
“There is no language in [Article VII of Minnesota’s Constitution] that reasonably could be understood to mean that a felon’s civil rights are restored by his or her release from incarceration or by being placed on probation without any incarceration,” Johnson wrote. “Appellants’ argument effectively would require this court to add words to article VII, section 1, which we are unwilling to do.”
The Legislature, he found, had the right to determine when and how felons’ civil rights are restored, and had done so by establishing that they are restored when a sentence is discharged, either by court order or by its expiration.
Johnson was joined in his opinion by Judges Carol Hooten and Randall Slieter, both appointees of former Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. They rejected plaintiffs Jennifer Schroeder, Elizer Darris, Christopher Jecevicus-Varner and Tierre Caldwell’s arguments that the deprivation of their voting rights violated the state constitution’s otherwise broad voting rights guarantee or their rights to equal protection and substantive due process.
Johnson wrote that the statute, established in 1963, held up to rational-basis review because “the expiration of a criminal sentence is a rational time to restore a person’s right to vote, in part because it is the time past which the person no longer may be reincarcerated for a felony conviction.” He also found that the Legislature’s objective in creating the statute was permissible and its methods were reasonable.
“The Legislature sought to provide a simplified means of restoring civil rights and reasonably chose to do so no later than the expiration of a criminal sentence, which marks the completion of a felon’s punishment,” he wrote. “The Legislature chose to restore civil rights automatically at discharge instead of requiring felons to apply for restoration.”
Minnesota’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union was one of several groups supporting the plaintiffs’ suit. Its representatives decried the decision and said they weren’t done with the issue.
“Felony disenfranchisement is one of the enduring and systemic racial disparities in our criminal justice system,” staff attorney David McKinney said in a statement. “Depriving people of their right to vote further entrenches these disparities. We will keep fighting and plan to seek review of this ruling in the Minnesota Supreme Court.”
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, whose office defended the statute, clarified that his legal position on the suit differed radically from his personal and political beliefs.
“We believe that the district court and the Court of Appeals got it right on the law. But that doesn’t at all change my personal view about the ultimate policy outcome I’d like to see,” Simon said.
Bipartisan legislative efforts to change the statute, he said, had his support.
“The whole idea of prison is that you are literally, physically banished,” he said. “But when you’re no longer physically banished, why should civic banishment continue?”
Felon voting rights have been a hot-button topic nationally in recent years, with advocates pointing out that removal of those rights disproportionately impacts communities of color and otherwise disenfranchised communities. In Minnesota, the plaintiffs pointed out, about 4.5% of voting-age Black residents were disenfranchised by restrictions on people on community supervision, along with 8.3% of Native Americans. Less than 1% Asian and white Minnesotans, they said, were similarly disenfranchised.
The efforts Simon cited have been at a standstill due to partisan gridlock, but voting rights advocates nationally have seen slow but notable progress. An August 2020 executive order from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds allowed felons who had served their sentences to vote, though that included a list of convictions which still carry lifetime ineligibility. In Florida, former felons were allowed to vote in the 2020 elections after an amendment to the state constitution and a lengthy court battle over a requirement that they first pay fines and fees.
Federally, House Democrats passed the For the People Act in March, which included provisions restoring felons’ voting rights. That has yet to pass the Senate, but President Joe Biden said in a statement shortly after its passage that he would sign it if it crossed his desk.
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