The old fight that caused roughly 750,000 deaths in the Civil War continues today in the U.S. Court of Appeals. Today a panel of judges will align with either Union or Confederate sympathies. Their decision will force white officials in the state of Mississippi to finally surrender a racist Jim Crow law designed in 1890 to dehumanize Black voters, or it will make a stand for Confederate-aligned “state’s rights.” In Mississippi, those particular rights entail a state’s right to steal the very essence of what it means to be an American: the unalienable right to participate in the nation’s democracy. More than 100 years later, the old fight continues.
The League of Women Voters of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice, One Voice, Mississippi Votes, Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, and a host of pro-voter organizations filed an amicus brief in Hopkins v. Watson, urging the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to declare Mississippi’s lifetime felony disenfranchisement law—Section 241—cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. The groups filed their appeal one year after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case, arguing the law keeping nearly 16% of Black residents under a lifetime voting ban should stay on the books.
“We reaffirm that the current version of Section 241 superseded the previous provisions and removed the discriminatory taint associated with the provision adopted in 1890. … Plaintiffs fail to establish the 1968 reenactment of Section 241 was motivated by racism,” the court declared in that case. “The judgment of the district court is affirmed.”
In Dennis Hopkins, et al. v. Secretary of State Michael Watson, however, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declared Section 241 unconstitutional last August. The lifetime voting ban remains in effect as the case proceeds through appeal.
Plaintiffs argue by depriving citizens of the fundamental right to vote for life, Mississippi’s lifetime felony disenfranchisement law constitutes an exceptionally harsh violation under the Eighth Amendment because voting is fundamental to life as an American citizen. They add that Section 241 was specifically designed to disenfranchise Black men, despite the 5th Court of Appeals argument that Mississippi officials somehow purged the Jim Crow law of its Jim Crowness. The groups argue Mississippi stands as one of the outliers in the nation in enforcing such a severe disenfranchisement law.
“When a state violates the rights of Americans by unjustifiably, automatically stripping them of their right to vote for life—for felling another’s tree or writing a bad check for $100—the federal courts are state citizens’ only protectors,” said Paloma Wu, deputy director of impact litigation at the Mississippi Center for Justice. “This case was filed in 2018, and our state has had 133 years to stop inflicting lifelong civic death on its citizens after sentence completion. Mississippi will not act unless ordered to.”
White Mississippi legislators were clearly not prepared to jettison their Jim Crow law in the 2022 legislative session.
Legislator Jim Beckett, who retired last year, killed a bill in his committee that would have virtually eliminated Section 241 in the 2022 legislative session. Beckett, who claimed he “wasn’t here when the law was created” said the white Republican supermajority in the House needed “to decide” what elements of Jim Crow they deemed useful.
“There have been measures that disallow everyone that’s incarcerated to vote, that after a certain period of time one can vote,” Beckett said. “And there are measures that can change who can vote, which felons should be on a list, which felons shouldn’t. There are measures that would address the issue in multiple ways, but there has not been a consensus on how to do that. That’s all I got to say on that.”
Critics say Beckett’s correct answer should have been that no part of a patently racist law should be preserved in 2024.