On Wednesday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a provision in Mississippi’s racist 1890 Constitution that permanently bans people from voting who were convicted of certain felonies that the framers believed were committed mostly by Black people. With this decision in this case – Harness v. Watson – thousands of Mississippians who have paid their debt to society will continue to have their voting rights stripped.
“This provision was a part of the 1890 plan to take the vote away from Black people who had attained it in the wake of the civil war,” said Rob McDuff, director of the Impact Litigation Project at the Mississippi Center for Justice. “Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals is allowing it to remain in place despite its racist origins. Despite this setback, we will continue this battle and seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court.”
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 response to federal court orders or by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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 in the original list but was removed in 1950 by constitutional amendment. Murder and rape were added by constitutional amendment in 1968, but MCJ did not seek to nullify these crimes from the list.
Vangela M. Wade, President and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice said, “For far too long, we as a nation have willfully deprived Black people of their right to vote – with Mississippi frequently leading the way. This ruling doubles down on this legacy. Access to democracy should not hinge on outdated laws designed to prevent people from voting based on the color of their skin.”
Today’s decision 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 the full collection of sixteen judges of the Fifth Circuit agreed to review the case, giving the plaintiffs some hope. But that hope was dashed with today’s decision.
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. 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 this appeal. Verrilli and Lipman both serve on MCJ’s Board of Directors and Banks is the former Chair of the Board.See a typo? Report it here.