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Mississippi cannot strip convicts of right to vote, court rules

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A divided federal appeals court on Friday ruled that tens of thousands of Mississippi convicts who had completed their sentences were being unconstitutionally stripped of their right to vote.

A 2-1 panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals faulted a provision of Mississippi’s state constitution that mandates lifetime disenfranchisement for people convicted of a set of crimes including murder, rape and theft.

Siding with a group of convicts who sued in 2018 to regain their right to vote, U.S. Circuit Judge James Dennis wrote that the state’s policy violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishments.

“In the last fifty years, a national consensus has emerged among the state legislatures against permanently disenfranchising those who have satisfied their judicially imposed sentences and thus repaid their debts to society,” he wrote.

While 35 states plus Washington, D.C., disavow the practice, Mississippi had become an “outlier among its sister states, bucking a clear and consistent trend in our Nation against permanent disenfranchisement,” Dennis wrote.

He said in the panel’s judgment, the Mississippi constitutional provision, Section 241, served no legitimate purpose and instead ensures that former offenders will never be fully rehabilitated and will continue to be punished.

Dennis, an appointee of former Democratic President Bill Clinton, was joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King, an appointee of former Democratic President Jimmy Carter. They are among the few Democratic appointees on the 5th Circuit, whose bench is filled with conservative jurists.

The decision reversed a lower-court judge’s decision favoring the state. Republican Attorney General Lynn Finch, whose office could further appeal the decision, did not respond to a request for comment.

In a dissenting opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Jones, an appointee of former Republican President Ronald Reagan, said the majority’s ruling “disregards text, precedent, and common sense to secure its preferred outcome.”

She noted the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 held that state laws permanently disenfranchising felons did not violate their equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 4th Amendment.

“This end-justifies-means analysis has no place in constitutional law,” she wrote.

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An election official hands a ballot to a voter at a polling station in Ridgeland, Mississippi, U.S., November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman/File Photo

A tour bus pulls up to Tougaloo College during the launch of the Freedom Ride for Voting Rights Bus Tour on Juneteenth in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S. June 19, 2021. REUTERS/Eric J. Shelton/File Photo
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