WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a challenge to a constitutional amendment adopted by the state of Mississippi during the racist Jim Crow era aimed at preventing blacks from voting.
The judges left in force a law that prohibits certain criminals from voting, which the state says is no longer tainted by the racist intentions of its original authors because it was subsequently updated twice.
The court’s decision not to hear the case drew a strong dissent from Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, along with fellow Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
She compared Friday’s decision to a court ruling a day earlier that effectively ended consideration of race in college admissions.
If the court viewed affirmative action as racial discrimination, then the Mississippi measure should be viewed similarly, Jackson said.
“So, at the same time that the court pledges to kill other giants, Mississippians can only hope that they won’t have to wait another century for another judicial knight-errant,” he wrote. «Constitutional errors do not correct themselves.»
The measure was first enacted in 1890 at a time when whites in the Deep South were fighting post-Civil War efforts to ensure previously enslaved blacks had equal rights.
The specific goal of the amendment was to disproportionately prevent blacks from voting by disenfranchising convicted felons for what were thought to be «black crimes» and refusing to do the same for «white crimes.»
As such, the amendment removed the voting rights of individuals convicted of bribery, robbery, theft, arson, obtaining property or money under false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, and bigamy. The list did not include the more serious crimes of murder and rape.
The measure, known as Section 241, was first amended in 1950 by removing burglary from the list and was amended again in 1968 when rape and murder were added. Both times, the proposed changes were adopted by the Legislature and ratified by the voters.
Roy Harness and Kamal Karriem, two black men who were disenfranchised after they were convicted of forgery and embezzlement, respectively, filed the legal challenge in 2017. They say Section 241 violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which requires the law to apply equally to all; and the 15th Amendment, which prohibits denial of the right to vote on the basis of race.
A federal judge rejected the challenge, noting that the updated amendment had previously been upheld by the New Orleans-based US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in a 1998 ruling.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit agreed to reconsider its precedent but, in a 2022 ruling, again upheld the restrictions, saying that while the state constitutional convention that gave rise to Section 241 was «drenched in racism,» subsequent changes proved that «any stain…has been healed».
Asking the Supreme Court to intervene, the lawyers for Harness and Kariem point to the fact that the court in 1985 struck down a similar measure that was enacted in Alabama in 1901.
The appeals court could only reach its conclusion by «blindness to the indisputable historical fact» that Mississippi voters were never given the choice to re-enact or strike down the provision in its entirety, attorneys said in court documents. Thousands of black people in Mississippi remain disenfranchised as a result of openly racist policy, they added.
Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a Republican, argued in court documents that it is not in question that the state has the power to strip away voting rights. She noted that the 1968 changes were passed as part of a response to a federal civil rights commission calling for reforms to the state’s voting laws.
Fitch also cited data showing that white criminals are just as likely to be disenfranchised as black criminals.