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Dennis Hopkins, et al. v. Secretary of State Michael Watson

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More than a century ago, Mississippi adopted a state constitution that was specifically intended to prevent formerly enslaved people and their descendants from gaining political influence, in part by blocking their access to the ballot box. A provision of that 1890 constitution – a lifetime voting ban for anyone convicted of certain crimes – continued that mission into modern times: Between 1994 and 2017, nearly 50,000 Mississippians were banned for life from voting due to conviction of a disqualifying offense.

Sixty percent of Mississippians banned from voting had completed their sentences. In recent decades, Black voting-age Mississippians had been disenfranchised at over twice the rate of white voting-age Mississippians.

The suit, which was granted class certification in 2019, contends that the lifetime voting ban violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment; the First Amendment’s right to political expression and association; and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment on the grounds that it arbitrarily grants or deprives citizens of the right to vote and that it was intended to discriminate on the basis of race.

Mississippi also has a legislative “suffrage” process that allows state lawmakers to restore someone’s voting rights. Only a handful of citizens succeed in persuading a legislator to introduce a bill on their behalf. Of the bills introduced, most failed to win the required votes. Between 2013 and 2017, Mississippi legislators have voted to restore the right to vote to just 15 Mississippians.

The suit intended to help people like Dennis Hopkins, one of six named plaintiffs. He was convicted of grand larceny more than 20 years ago. Now, he owns his towing business. He’s been a parent to foster kids and is raising eight children with his wife, a schoolteacher. He’s spent countless hours volunteering as a coach for youth sports – even founding a local peewee football team. But he gets no say in the political leadership of his city, state or nation.

“I have paid Mississippi what I owe it in full, but I still can’t cast my vote for my children’s future,” he says. “I feel like a branded man.”

In its ruling, the federal district court recognized the lawsuit’s race-based equal-protection argument. Later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held that Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The decision, issued Aug. 4, 2023, has the ability to restore the right to vote to tens of thousands of Mississippians.

The court noted that the voting ban ensures that formerly incarcerated people “will never be fully rehabilitated.” The decision also said that “Mississippi stands as an outlier among its sister states, bucking a clear and consistent trend in our [n]ation against permanent disenfranchisement.”

On Sept. 28, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit decided to rehear the case.

The law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP is co-counsel in the case.