Mississippi Center for Justice is Filing Petition With U.S. Supreme Court to Review Challenge to Racist Felon Disfranchisement Provision in Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution

October 28, 2022
Contact: Courtney Farrell, comms-mcj@rabengroup.com, (989) 572-8162

Mississippi Center for Justice is Filing Petition With U.S. Supreme Court to Review Challenge to Racist Felon Disfranchisement Provision in Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution

Jackson, MS— Today the Mississippi Center for Justice is filing a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to review MCJ’s challenge to the felon disfranchisement provision of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution. The outcome in this case – Harness v. Watson – will determine whether or not thousands of Mississippians who have paid their debt to society will continue to be permanently banned from voting.

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 the 1960s in response to federal court orders and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“At a time when our state and nation are struggling with the vestiges of a history of racism, it is important that the United States Supreme Court step in to address this remaining vestige of the malicious 1890 plan to prevent an entire race of people from voting in Mississippi,” said Rob McDuff, the lawyer for the challengers and the director of the Impact Litigation Project at the Mississippi Center for Justice. “Although the Supreme Court has become more conservative in recent years, we hope it will see that the continued implementation of this racist provision is an affront to the promise of the Equal Protection of the Law contained in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” 

Vangela M. Wade, President and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, said “Our country’s ideals of equality and freedom are swiftly undermined by Mississippi’s insidious practice of felony disenfranchisement, which is one of voter suppression’s most effective tools. Too many Mississippians, particularly people of color, face enormous hurdles to accessing the ballot box. We hope the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down this 132-year-old racist provision in the Mississippi Constitution.” 

Today’s petition to the Supreme Court marks the latest chapter in this five-year-old lawsuit. The felon disfranchisement provision originally was upheld by a federal district court in Jackson. That decision was affirmed by a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit. Then, in August, the full collection of seventeen judges of the Fifth Circuit reviewed the case and upheld the provision by a 10-7 vote. MCJ is asking the Supreme Court to overrule the lower courts and prevent the State of Mississippi from using the racist 1890 list to ban people from voting.

The following crimes from the 1890 list disqualify people from voting: bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, and bigamy. Burglary was on the original list but was removed in 1950 by a constitutional amendment. Murder and rape were added by constitutional amendment in 1968, but MCJ did not seek to nullify these crimes from the list.

MCJ filed this lawsuit in 2017 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, stopped using drugs, and, at the age of 62, earned a degree in social work from Jackson State. He later earned his Masters in Social Work and worked with recovering addicts. 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 includes 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 the appeals. 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. Supported and staffed by attorneys and other professionals, the Center pursues strategies to combat discrimination and poverty statewide.