The legal battle over a controversial provision in the Mississippi Constitution took another turn on Sep. 28 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit announced that a ruling made in August by three of its judges will be reconsidered. The provision strips the right to vote from individuals convicted of serious crimes and disenfranchises them for life. In April, two of the court’s 16 active judges ruled that the provision amounted to cruel and unusual punishment that disproportionately affects African Americans. One judge voted that it did not.
En blanc rehearing
When the ruling is reconsidered, arguments will be made in front of the full court. The proceedings are being referred to as an en blanc rehearing because all of the court’s active judges will be present. The legal dispute that led to the rehearing began in 2018 when a group of former inmates sued the state of Mississippi to regain their right to cast votes in state and federal elections. Under the current law, only a pardon or act of the legislature can restore a former convict’s voting rights.
African Americans most affected
Census and conviction data suggests that African Americans are the demographic group most affected by the voting rights provision. About 38% of Mississippi’s population is Black, but 58% of the individuals convicted of crimes that would strip them of their voting rights between 1994 and 2017 were African American. Mississippi residents who are convicted of crimes in federal court or in another state despite the best efforts of their criminal defense attorneys do not lose their voting rights.
A politically charged issue
A federal appeals court will reconsider a controversial ruling made by three of its 16 judges. The case is politically charged and deals with the voting rights of former prisoners, so the court’s rulings are likely to be scrutinized closely. The ruling will be reconsidered in an en blanc hearing held before the entire court.