6th Circuit Dismisses Lawsuit Challenging Kentucky’s Arbitrary Rights Restoration Process

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, July 20, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit challenging Kentucky’s arbitrary voting rights restoration scheme for certain individuals with prior felony convictions. 

The 2018 lawsuit — which was filed on behalf of eight disenfranchised individuals with prior felony convictions — alleged that Kentucky’s arbitrary voting rights restoration scheme lacked objective standards for re-enfranchisement in violation of the First Amendment. Additionally, the lawsuit argued that there is a definite time limit for the governor to act on a rights restoration application, meaning that there is a backlog of pending applications that are “held in limbo by the Governor’s office, without any final decision.” The plaintiffs asked the court to order the state to impose a restoration process with non-arbitrary, neutral criteria.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, all convicted felons in Kentucky were denied their voting rights unless they successfully petitioned for rights restoration. Under Kentucky law, the governor has the sole discretion to grant or deny rights restoration to former felons who apply to be re-enfranchised. However, in December 2019, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) issued an executive order that automatically restores the right to vote to Kentuckians convicted of certain state felony convictions who completed their sentences. Following this order, the district court dismissed the case as moot, which some of the plaintiffs appealed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

On appeal, the plaintiffs contended that while the executive order restored voting rights to certain Kentuckians, it still excluded those with non-qualifying Kentucky state felony convictions, out-of-state felony convictions and federal felony convictions. On Oct. 4, 2021, the 6th Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision dismissing the case as moot, thereby allowing litigation to continue in the district court. 

Subsequently in July 2022, the district court once again dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, holding that they lack standing (meaning capacity to sue) and that their First Amendment rights are not violated by the challenged scheme. In particular, the district court held that “it is not immediately apparent that Plaintiffs have suffered an injury in fact because they have never participated in the reenfranchisement scheme they challenge…[One of the plaintiffs] has applied for restoration of his right to vote, and he states that his application is pending before the Governor…[The other two] have not applied.”

The plaintiffs once again appealed the dismissal to the 6th Circuit, which today affirmed the district court’s dismissal. The unanimous opinion was authored by Helene White, who was appointed to the 6th Circuit by former President George W. Bush. In today’s opinion, the 6th Circuit held that although the district court’s “dismissal for lack of standing was proper…[a]ffirming this decision does not insulate Kentucky’s restoration process from constitutional review.”

Read the opinion here. 

Learn more about the case here.