US appeals court revives Mississippi law barring convicts from voting

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Thursday agreed to reconsider a ruling by three of its judges that struck down part of Mississippi’s state constitution that strips the right to vote from thousands of convicts after they complete their sentences.

The decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to hold a so-called en banc rehearing of the case before all 16 of its active judges automatically voids, for now, last month’s 2-1 panel ruling finding the provision was a “cruel and unusual punishment” that disproportionately affected Black people.

“We look forward to re-briefing the issues and arguing before the full Fifth Circuit in January,” Jonathan Youngwood, a lawyer for plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit said in an email. “Voting is the cornerstone of our democratic society.”

A spokesperson for the office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The disputed part of the state constitution mandates lifetime disenfranchisement for people convicted of a set of crimes including murder, rape and theft. A group of convicts sued the state in 2018 to regain their right to vote.

U.S. Circuit Judge James Dennis wrote for the majority last month that the provision, which he said was adopted in 1890 after the U.S. Civil War to “ensure the political supremacy of the white race,” violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishments.

The provision, whose list of disqualifying crimes had been amended twice, remained effective in achieving its “racially discriminatory aim,” Dennis said. Of the nearly 29,000 Mississippians convicted of disenfranchising offenses who had completed their sentences from 1994 to 2017, 58% were Black, he said. According to the 2020 census, just under 38% of Mississippi residents are Black.

Dennis was joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King in reversing a lower-court judge’s ruling. Both are appointees of Democratic presidents on the conservative-leaning court. U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Jones, an appointee of former Republican President Ronald Reagan, was also on the panel and had dissented.

Twelve of the 16 currently active judges on the court were appointed by Republicans.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi)