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Hopkins v. Watson (Amicus Brief)

Faith-based groups and religious leaders urge the Fifth Circuit to affirm that Mississippi’s lifetime felony disenfranchisement policy is a cruel and unusual punishment.

Published: December 6, 2023

On March 27, 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Mississippians with felony convictions who are permanently barred from voting despite having completed the terms of their sentences. Plaintiffs challenged two provisions of Mississippi’s constitution: Section 241, which provides for the permanent disenfranchisement of people convicted of certain felonies, and Section 253, which authorizes the legislature to restore a person’s voting rights by a two-thirds vote of both legislative houses. Plaintiffs alleged that Section 241 violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, and Section 253 violates the First Amendment’s right to political expression and association and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. 

On August 7, 2019, the district court denied plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to all claims except plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment challenge to Section 253. Both the plaintiffs and the defendant appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

On August 4, 2023, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit held that Section 241’s lifetime voting ban violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. footnote1_bnk3w8d 1 The three-judge panel also affirmed the district court’s decision denying plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment challenge to Section 241’s lifetime ban, holding it was foreclosed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Richardson v. Ramriez, in which the Court held that Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment grants states an “affirmative sanction” to deny voting rights to people convicted of crimes, even after they have completed their sentences. The panel also held that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge Section 253’s legislative process for restoring voting rights. In so holding, the panel reasoned there is a “national consensus” against lifetime voting bans, as 35 states and Washington, DC do not have such a policy. In addition, the panel observed, the number of states with any form of a lifetime ban has decreased from 27 to 16 within the last 50 years, “demonstrat[ing] that society has turned away from that punishment.” The panel then concluded that Section 241’s lifetime ban is cruel and unusual because “[p]ermanent denial of the franchise…is an exceptionally severe penalty,” it “applies equally to all members of the class, regardless of their underlying crime or…individual mental state…[and] does not reflect society’s measured response to a [person with a felony conviction]’s moral guilt,” and it does not serve a legitimate penological purpose.

On August 17, 2023, the State of Mississippi asked the full Fifth Circuit to rehear the case. On September 28, 2023, the court granted the Secretary’s request and vacated the three-judge panel’s decision.

On December 6, 2023, the Brennan Center and co-counsel at Latham & Watkins LLP filed an amicus brief on behalf of 30 faith-based groups and religious leaders in support of the plaintiffs. The brief argues that amici’s faith traditions, while varied and diverse, all agree that Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban is morally indefensible because the imposition of such a harsh punishment: (1) stands in marked contrast to the values of mercy, forgiveness, compassion, redemption, and restorative justice that are embraced by all of amici’s religions; (2) forecloses redemption and rehabilitation without moral or penological justification; and (3) offends society’s evolving standards of decency, standards shaped in large part by the values of amici’s faith traditions. As a result, the faith-based groups and religious leaders argue that Mississippi’s lifetime ban violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

The Fifth Circuit has scheduled oral argument for January 23, 2024.

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