25 Jun Full 5th Circuit to Review Racist Felon Disfranchisement Provision in Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution
In response to a request from the Mississippi Center for Justice, the full United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed on Wednesday to review Mississippi’s felon disfranchisement provision from the Jim Crow 1890 Constitution. MCJ’s challenge to that provision had previously been denied by a federal district judge in Jackson and a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals.
“This is a big step forward in this case, which we filed in 2017 to remove the remnants of this racist 1890 provision from Mississippi’s Constitution,” said Rob McDuff, the MCJ attorney who filed the case. “We are now in front of the full complement of 17 active Court of Appeals judges who will take a fresh look at whether the unconstitutional motivation behind this law requires that it be struck down.”
The felon disfranchisement measure, contained in Section 241 of the 1890 Constitution, permanently bars anyone from voting who was convicted of certain crimes that the 1890 framers believed were committed mostly by Black people. It was one of several voting provisions in the 1890 Constitution designed to take the vote away from Black citizens who had obtained it during the Reconstruction period after the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War. The other discriminatory provisions, including the poll tax and the so-called understanding clause, were eliminated in response to federal court orders or by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We are committed to challenging racial discrimination in voting on all fronts, including this remaining vestige of the infamous 1890 constitutional plan to steal the vote from Black people,” said Vangela M. Wade, president and CEO of Mississippi Center for Justice. “At a time when most states have repealed their disfranchisement laws, it is time to remove from Mississippi’s constitution this backward provision that was enacted with such a vicious purpose.”
The disqualifying crimes from the 1890 list that are still in effect today are bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, and bigamy. Burglary was in the original list but was removed in 1950 by constitutional amendment. Murder and rape were added by constitutional amendment in 1968. MCJ’s lawsuit seeks to nullify only those crimes in the original list and does not challenge the use of murder and rape as disqualifying crimes.
MCJ filed the current lawsuit, known as Harness v. Watson, on behalf of Roy Harness and Kamal Karriem. Harness is a military veteran who was convicted of forgery in 1986 during a period of drug addiction. He served his sentence and later kicked the habit and went on to earn a degree in social work from Jackson State at the age of 62. Karriem is a former city council member in Columbus who was convicted of embezzlement in 2005. He also served his sentence and later became a pastor and one of the owners and operators of his family’s restaurant.
MCJ’s co-counsel on this case include former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Fred Banks, legendary civil rights lawyers David Lipman and Armand Derfner, and former U.S. Solicitor General Don Verrilli, who joined the team to assist with this appeal. Verrilli and Lipman both serve on MCJ’s Board of Directors and Banks is the former Chair of the Board.
The Mississippi Center for Justice is dedicated to dismantling the state’s culture of inequity and injustice. Support and staffed by attorneys and other professionals, the Center pursues strategies to combat discrimination and poverty statewide.