NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Whether permanently stripping voting rights from some Mississippi felons amounts to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment is being weighed by 19 federal appellate judges, some of whom said during a hearing Tuesday that it should be decided by lawmakers, not a court.
At issue before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was Mississippi’s prohibition on voting for those convicted of any of a list of various felonies, including nonviolent ones such as forgery or timber theft. The outcome could affect voting rights for tens of thousands.
Criminal justice advocates won a major victory in August when a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that the ban violates the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But the full 17-member circuit court vacated that ruling weeks later and scheduled Tuesday’s hearing.
Judge Kyle Duncan was among 5th Circuit judges who suggested during questioning that the Legislature, not judges, should prescribe punishment for a crime. “There is no judicial calculus to tell the difference between a rapist, and an armed robber and a car thief — and a timber thief, for that matter,” Duncan told attorney Jon Youngwood, who was arguing against disenfranchisement.
Judge Stephen Higginson appeared to be more sympathetic to Youngwood’s argument, noting that Mississippi is unusual in permanently disenfranchising people for lesser felonies. And he pushed back against Mississippi attorney Scott Stern’s contention that the voting ban is not a criminal punishment, but a regulation regarding fitness to vote.
Permanently disenfranchising someone, Higginson said, “sounds punitive.”
The court’s 17 full-time active judges heard arguments, along with two senior-status, part-time judges who sat on the panel that ruled against the ban in August. They gave no indication when they would rule.
Under the Mississippi Constitution, people convicted of 10 specific felonies, including bribery, theft and arson, lose the right to vote. Under a previous state attorney general, the list was expanded to 22 crimes, including timber larceny — felling and stealing trees from someone else’s property — and carjacking.
To have their voting rights restored, people convicted of any of the
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