State of Mississippi

Mississippi Felony Disenfranchisement Challenge (Hopkins)

Hopkins v. Watson

Class action lawsuit filed on behalf of permanently disenfranchised individuals who have completed their sentences challenging the Mississippi’s Constitution’s felony disenfranchisement provision, Section 241. Section 241 — which was enshrined in Mississippi’s 1890 constitution with the express purpose of denying Black men the right to vote — strips the right to vote for life from anyone convicted of bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy. It was later amended by the state Legislature in 1950 to remove burglary and again in 1968 to add rape and murder as disenfranchising crimes. The lawsuit, which was filed against the Mississippi secretary of state, alleges that Section 241 violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment as well as the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. 

The lawsuit also challenges Section 253 of the Mississippi Constitution, which provides for an arbitrary and onerous rights restoration scheme for individuals convicted of Section 241’s disenfranchising crimes. Under Section 253, the Legislature can only restore voting rights on an individual basis via a two-thirds vote of both chambers, subject to approval by the governor. The plaintiffs argue that this provision similarly violates the Equal Protection Clause as well as the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. Under Section 253, very few individuals have had their voting rights restored: Between 2013 and 2018, the Mississippi Legislature restored the right to vote to only 18 individuals. 

The case was consolidated with another lawsuit challenging Section 241, Harness v. Watson, but the Harness case was later severed from the Hopkins case and was litigated separately. In a 2019 order, a federal district court held that the plaintiffs had standing to bring their claims, but ultimately rejected the merits of their constitutional arguments against Section 241 and 253. The plaintiffs subsequently appealed the rejection of their claims to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, while the secretary of state concurrently appealed the district court’s ruling that the plaintiffs had standing. 

On Aug. 4, 2023, the 5th Circuit struck down Section 241, holding that it violates the 8th Amendment since it is a form of “cruel and unusual punishment.” The majority did however affirm the district court’s rejection of the plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment claims against Section 241 based on prior U.S. Supreme Court precedent. It also affirmed the rejection of the plaintiffs’ claims against Section 253, holding that they “lack standing to challenge the legislative process embodied in Section 253.”

The 5th Circuit remanded the case to the district court with instructions to “grant relief declaring Section 241 unconstitutional and enjoining the Secretary from enforcing Section 241 against the Plaintiffs and the members of the class they represent.” As of now, Section 241 is blocked and tens of thousands of Mississippians with prior felony convictions stand to be re-enfranchised.

On Aug. 17, the Mississippi attorney general filed a petition for rehearing en banc. On Sept. 28, 2023, the 5th Circuit agreed to rehear the appeal and vacated the three-judge panel’s prior decision.

STATUS: Oral arguments were heard by the 5th Circuit on Jan. 23, 2024. Parties are awaiting a decision from the court.

Case Documents (district court)

Case Documents (5th circuit)

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