Decision following oral arguments could restore voting rights to thousands in Mississippi
NEW ORLEANS – Today, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hear en banc oral arguments in Harness v. Watson to review an earlier three-judge decision regarding a legal challenge of Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban.
The following statement about the proceedings is by Waikinya Clanton, Mississippi State Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC):
“The consequences of today’s oral arguments in the Harness case are vast. They will help determine whether tens of thousands of Mississippians are able to participate fully as citizens in their local government or whether they remain blocked from the ballot box for the rest of their lives.
“We look forward to the arguments the Harness plaintiffs will expertly make and optimistically await a decision in this case as well as in the Hopkins v. Hosemann case, which awaits a panel decision following December 2019 oral arguments. Both cases challenge Mississippi’s unconstitutional disenfranchisement scheme.
“Our clients, including Dennis Hopkins, the Harness plaintiffs, and advocates across the state have fought for decades as dozens of elections pass by to have a voice in the democratic process. The legislature largely ignores them.
“That is because 130 years after their implementation, Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban and arbitrary re-enfranchisement scheme are working exactly as intended: to disproportionately keep Black Mississippians locked out of the political process for life. This year, only two Mississippians with felony convictions were able to navigate the state’s arduous reenfranchisement process: obtain the support of a legislator to bring an individual suffrage bill in their name and obtain the needed two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature.
“For generations, the state has locked up its residents in carceral systems. For those who complete sentences and exit these systems, the state then locks them out of a full political, economic, and civic life in their communities and makes it more likely they will end up back behind bars. It’s a vicious cycle that a favorable decision in Harness could help break once and for all.”
In July 2021, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in Harness v. Watson who are seeking – like plaintiffs in ongoing SPLC-filed litigation Hopkins v. Hosemann – to dismantle Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban for certain felony convictions, including writing bad checks and timber larceny.
While the Hopkins and Harness were consolidated in the lower district court in Jackson, the appeals of the two cases were heard by separate panels at the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. Hopkins plaintiffs await a decision of their initial panel, which heard oral arguments in December 2019.
Both cases request that the Mississippi’s disenfranchisement scheme be struck down, but they cite separate constitutional grounds. Hopkins also challenges the state’s arbitrary and standardless “suffrage bill” re-enfranchisement scheme in which Mississippi’s Legislature has the power to restore voting rights on a case-by-case basis.
Access the full amicus brief here: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/19-60632_brief_for_amici_curiae.pdf