JUDGE CALLS OWN RULING "UNFAIR" IN VOTING RIGHTS CASE
BATON ROUGE, LA — Today, Judge Timothy Kelley ruled against VOTE’s motion for summary judgment, and in favor of the Secretary of State, in VOTE v. Louisiana. “While we continue this fight in the courts, we will also support our legislators in proposing bills and laws to amend the state constitution,” emphasized Norris Henderson, Executive Director of VOTE. Joining VOTE at the hearing were Reps. Patricia Smith and Denise Marcelle, both of whom expressed their gratitude for and support of this work. Marcelle spoke briefly about co-sponsoring voting rights legislation with Smith.
VOTE v. Louisiana challenges the Louisiana law that denies more than 70,000 residents their right to vote. The lawsuit states that people living under community supervision, meaning on probation or parole, should not be barred from the most fundamental right of citizenship: the right to vote.
Judge Kelley today heard arguments from both sides on their respective motions for summary judgment. VOTE argued that the language in the Constitution that states, “under the order of imprisonment” does not prohibit people under community supervision from voting because they are not imprisoned. The Secretary of State’s office argued that the law accurately reflects the intent of the framers of the 1974 Constitution and should remain in place.
Kelley spoke to a courtroom packed with people directly impacted by the law, hailing from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, to as far as Lafayette. Finding the law to be in line with the intent of the framers, the judge vocalized his personal disagreement with his own ruling. “Twice a year I have to make a ruling I don't like. I don't like this ruling,” explained the judge. “It's not fair,” he said, that hard-working, tax-paying people are denied this fundamental right of citizenship. However, Kelley felt he had no option under the law to declare the statute unconstitutional.
For now, Louisiana will continue to disenfranchise people under community supervision. VOTE will appeal Kelley’s ruling to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Disenfranchisement of People on Community Supervision in Louisiana," VOTE, League of Women Voters, The Sentencing Project (Feb. 2017)
Next: VOTE will file appeal in 1st Circuit Court of Appeals by June, 2017.
03-13-16 Hearing for Summary Judgment
10-31-15 Hearing on Exceptions and Class Certification
07-01-16 Petition filed
When Only White Men Could Vote...
Up until 1868, only white men could vote, and some lost their voting rights after being convicted of certain crimes: Forgery, Bribery, Perjury, and High Crimes & Misdemeanors (when public officials abuse their power).
Today, we would say those particular crimes were "rationally related" to the ability to rig an election during the days of paper ballots. When we fight against discrimination based on criminal convictions, there is generally an allowance for when a crime is related to the job sought, but otherwise it should be irrelevant towards people's ability to have "served their time."
After Black Americans gained voting rights, Louisiana created a ban on anyone in prison at hard labor. A century ago, this would apply to thousands of Black men re-enslaved after convictions working as Convict Lease-Labor. Slavery is still legal under the 13th Amendment, for those convicted of crimes, and this allowed the Southern plantations to keep operating- as long as the sheriff provided them with enough convicted slaves.
In 1974, the year of Louisiana's most recent constitution, Prof. Hargrave (the state's top constitutional scholar, wrote that barring those "under order of imprisonment," would apply to people inside prison and those who have escaped. A year later, the state's longest serving Attorney General, Billy Guste, wrote an advisory opinion that the bar included people on parole, but not on probation.
In 1977, the state legislature wrote the law we live under today, redefining "Under Order of Imprisonment" to include people on parole and probation. In 2016, this bars 70,000 people from the ballot.
Read the full report: Racial History of Felon Disenfranchisement in Louisiana.
VOTE and Voting Rights in the Media
-Maryland Restores Voting Rights to 40,000 on probation and parole (overriding the governor's veto) Feb. 9, 2016.
-Kentucky Governor overturns his predecessor, reinstates permanent disenfranchisement. December 22, 2015.
-"One in 13 African Americans can't vote because of felonies, but rate in Louisiana falls below national average," TImes-Picayune, July 12, 2012.
• VOTE's Deputy Director Bruce Reilly testimony for National Voting Rights Commission on racial history of felon disenfranchisement (April 9, 2014) (audio).