30 Jun Supreme Court Denies Review of Felon Disfranchisement Provision from the Jim Crow 1890 Constitution
For Immediate Release
June 30, 2023
Contact: Mandesha Thornton, firstname.lastname@example.org
Washington D.C.— Today the United States Supreme Court denied a petition from the Mississippi Center for Justice to review Mississippi’s felon disfranchisement provision from the Jim Crow 1890 Constitution. The provision is the only feature still in effect from the 1890 array of restrictions designed to take the vote away from Black citizens who had attained in the wake of the Civil War. MCJ’s challenge to it has been rejected in the lower federal courts and the Supreme Court’s denial of review brings the case to an end. Justices Jackson and Sotomayor dissented from the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case.
“We are extremely disappointed in the Supreme Court’s failure to review the case and
eliminate this post-Reconstruction vestige of white supremacy from Mississippi’s constitution and Mississippi’s elections,” said Rob McDuff, the MCJ attorney who filed the case. “Now that the federal courts have declined to step it, the Mississippi legislature must step up and launch the process of amending the state constitution to repeal it.”
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 rob Black people of the political power they had gained in Mississippi after the Civil War and had used to elect Black officials to local and statewide office and the United States Congress. The other discriminatory provisions, including the poll tax and the so-called literacy test and understanding clause, were eliminated in response to federal court orders or by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“At a time when most states have repealed their disfranchisement laws, we need to
remove from Mississippi’s constitution this backward provision that was enacted for racist reasons,” said Vangela M. Wade, the President and CEO of MCJ. “Here in the twenty-first century, just and reasonable minded people must not allow this outdated relic of the nineteenth century to stand or define a new Mississippi. The legislature now has the duty to begin the repeal process.”
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.
Today’s decision marks the final chapter in this six-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 and later by the full collection of seventeen judges of the Fifth Circuit by a 10-7 vote.
MCJ was joined by former U.S. Solicitor General Don Verrilli in asking the Supreme
Court to review the case. Besides Verrilli and McDuff, the co-counsel on this case include former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Fred Banks and legendary civil rights lawyers David Lipman and Armand Derfner. 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.