Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch is urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to review the State’s Jim Crow-era felony disenfranchisement law, telling the justices that the State “purged any taint from the 1890 law” with changes in 1950s and 1960s—a period when Mississippi was openly defying federal desegregation orders.
The case, Harness v. Watson, is over Section 241 of the Mississippi Constitution, which white-supremacist leaders adopted in 1890 in an attempt to disenfranchise Black residents for life. The law designated certain crimes that white lawmakers at the time believed Black people were more likely to commit as “disenfranchising crimes.”
The Mississippi Center For Justice is representing two disenfranchised Black plaintiffs in the case, Roy Harness and Kamal Karriem. On Aug. 24, the conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans admitted in a ruling that Section 241 was “steeped in racism,” but the court’s white, conservative majority voted to uphold it by claiming Mississippi has made enough changes since 1890 to override the racist “taint” of Jim Crow.
MCJ asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal last October, with lead lawyer Rob McDuff calling the law a “remaining vestige of the malicious 1890 plan to prevent an entire race of people from voting in Mississippi.”
Fitch filed the brief-in-opposition to the request on Jan. 3, 2023, arguing that states have “broad” power to deny citizens who commit crimes the right to vote. The brief points to the 14th Amendment, which says states may deny citizens “the right to vote” for “participation in rebellion, or other crime.” Her brief concedes, however, that the Mississippi Supreme Court once admitted that lawmakers designed the law to prevent Black men from voting.
“Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone,” the Mississippi Supreme Court explained in 1896.
“Based on the view that black Mississippians were ‘given rather to furtive offenses than to the robust crimes of the whites,’ in the 1890 disenfranchisement provision, ‘[b]urglary, theft, arson, and obtaining money under false pretenses were declared to be disqualifications, while robbery and murder and other crimes in which violence was the principal ingredient were not,’” Fitch’s brief says, reciting the 1896 opinion.