‘Outlier’ Mississippi Voting Ban for Felons Reversed; Appeals Court Calls Ban ‘Cruel and Unusual Punishment’ for Tens of Thousands of Mississippians 

PC justgrimes via flickr

By The Vanguard Staff

JACKSON, MISS – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled here this week Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban for people with disqualifying felony convictions who have completed their sentences is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

SPLC, in a statement, said the decision (here) “overturns Section 241 of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, which imposed a lifetime voting ban for citizens who have completed their sentences for certain felony convictions. The right to vote will be restored to tens of thousands of Mississippians following the decision.”

“The right to vote is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy,” said Jon Youngwood, who argued the appeal before the Fifth Circuit and is Co-Chair of Simpson Thacher’s Litigation Department. “This is a major victory for Mississippians who have completed their sentences and deserve to participate fully in our political process.”

The appeals court said, “Mississippi stands as an outlier among its sister states, bucking a clear and consistent trend in our nation against permanent disenfranchisement. By severing former offenders from the body politic forever (the Mississippi Constitution of 1890) 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. It is thus a cruel and unusual punishment.”

The court added the voting right “is not only fundamental to the democratic ordering of our society, it is also expressive of the dignity of American citizenship—that each person is an equal participant in charting our nation’s course. Mississippi denies this precious right to a large class of its citizens, automatically, mechanically, and with no thought given to whether it is proportionate as punishment for an amorphous and partial list of crimes. 

“In so excluding former offenders from a basic aspect of democratic life, often long after their sentences have been served, Mississippi inflicts a disproportionate punishment that has been rejected by a majority of the states and, in the independent judgment of this court informed by our precedents, is at odds with society’s evolving standards of decency (it) exacts a cruel and unusual punishment on Plaintiffs.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2018 by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, LLP, argued Mississippi’s “lifetime voting bans arbitrarily grant or deprive citizens who reside in Mississippi of the right to vote and was intended to discriminate on the basis of race.”

“Section 241 of the Mississippi Constitution lifetime disenfranchisement scheme disproportionately impacted Black Mississippians,” said Ahmed Soussi, staff attorney for the SPLC. “We applaud the court for reversing this cruel and harmful practice and restoring the right to vote to tens of thousands of people who have completed their sentences.”

“This is a tremendous victory for the state of Mississippi,” said SPLC Mississippi State Office Director Waikinya Clanton. “People have paid their debt to society and have been oppressed from exercising their voting rights for far too long. This is a huge win in the fight to restore dignity and respect to the voice of the disenfranchised voter in Mississippi.”

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