Federal judges to determine if Mississippi can permanently strip felons of voting rights

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Federal judges will hear arguments on Tuesday to determine whether to restore the right to vote to Mississippi residents convicted of certain felonies.

Under the Mississippi Constitution, people convicted of 10 specific felonies, including bribery, theft and arson, lose the right to vote. Criminal justice advocates sued the state after the list was expanded to 22 crimes, including non-violent offenses such as timber larceny and carjacking.

On Tuesday, 19 federal appellate judges on the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, including the court’s 17 full-time active judges and two senior-status part-time judges, are expected to hear arguments that could potentially restore the right to vote to tens of thousands of people.

In August, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that the ban violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibiting “cruel and unusual” punishment. However, the full 17-member circuit court vacated that ruling weeks later.

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The hearing on Tuesday will ultimately determine whether Mississippi’s ban remains in effect or if felons should have the right to vote.

“Mississippi stands as an outlier among its sister states, bucking a clear and consistent trend in our Nation against permanent disenfranchisement,” Senior Judge James Dennis wrote in the August opinion, joined by Senior Judge Carolyn Dineen King.

Dennis was nominated to the court by former President Clinton, and King was nominated by former President Carter.

The US Supreme Court

The third judge on the panel was Judge Edith Jones, nominated to the court by Republican President Reagan. In a dissent to the August ruling, Jones cited a previous Supreme Court ruling regarding felons’ disenfranchisement, saying it is up to legislatures to decide such matters.

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Attorneys for the state have argued that the voting ban is a “nonpunitive voting regulation.” They have also countered the court’s three-judge panel in saying that it did not constitute punishment and, even if it did, it was not cruel or unusual.

Under the current law, people convicted of such crimes must get a pardon from the governor to be able to vote. Similarly, they could persuade lawmakers to pass individual bills just for them to vote. Such legislation would require two-thirds approval.

The statue of justice Themis

Jones, Dennis and King will join the rest of the 16 other full-time members of the court for Tuesday’s hearing.

The 5th Circuit is one of the most conservative circuit appeals courts, with 12 of its full-time posts filled by nominees of Republican presidents.

An immediate decision is not expected.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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