By Brian Bakst
A court case that affects the voting rights of more than 50,000 Minnesotans with active criminal histories awaits a state Supreme Court ruling after a hearing Tuesday that left judges grappling with their role.
The challenge involves a constitutional clause and its interaction with a 1963 law that requires criminals to complete their time in custody, supervised release or probation before they can vote again.
The people and groups behind the trial argue that the system disproportionately harms communities of color because their punishments tend to drag them out longer. They want eligibility to vote to be automatically restored upon release from incarceration.
Their lawyer, Craig Coleman, told the court he had a duty to resolve an issue lawmakers would not address.
“Our clients rely here on the role of this Court as the ultimate guarantor of their constitutional rights. And our state’s criminal disenfranchisement system is so widespread, so old, that there is only one guess – a passive guess – that it has to be OK, has to be of use to something, ”he said. Coleman said.
He argued that denying people the opportunity to vote runs counter to their rehabilitation and reintegration into society, as it cuts them off from an important civic role.
Angela Behrens, attorney for Secretary of State Steve Simon, urged the court not to upset the system and to leave the rulings of two lower courts that upheld it intact. She said Simon, a DFLer, believes the legislature is the right place for change.
“Whether rights should be restored sooner is certainly up for debate,” Behrens said. “And if this was a hearing before a legislative committee, the parties would likely be aligned.”
The judges were heavily involved in the hearing, throwing question after question to the lawyers. Six of the seven judges spoke at one point, only Judge G. Barry Anderson remained silent.
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea noted that there are many criminals who never see the inside of a prison and would never lose their right to vote by virtue of the outcome sought by complainants.
“And isn’t that a problem under the Constitution?” Gildea asked. “Having said that you are a criminal, you cannot vote. “
Judge Natalie Hudson also asked if there were any nuances the court couldn’t address, such as the people on electronic surveillance. And she suggested that sentencing patterns add to the complications.
“Thirty, 40, 50 years ago, going even further back, we didn’t have the level of people on probation that we have now. It’s a more recent event, ”said Hudson. “But it seems to me that the distinctions you are asking us to make are distinctions best left to the legislature. And why is it not?
Coleman responded that it was crucial that the tribunal be a “safe haven for the disenfranchised” and “the ultimate protector of constitutional rights”.
At other times, Hudson has framed his questions around the idea that the court has a greater role to play in determining whether the law is flawed due to the resulting impact. She cited a previous 1991 ruling in a case known as the State against Russell that led to further scrutiny of a law when it negatively affected one race more than others.
“It seems to me that when you deprived huge swathes of the population of the right to vote, especially when that population is predominantly made up of people of color, the equal protection clause was designed for the very people it was designed to. protect, ”Hudson said. “How’s that the tight fit that Russell needs?” “
Behrens, the state attorney, replied that the amendment to the 1963 law made it easier to reclaim voting rights than before.
“Because the law does not deprive anyone of the right to vote, it gives back the right to vote to everyone, and that is only the end of the sentence,” she said. “So it may not be as soon as some would like, but the Constitution is what enforces this denial of the right to vote. The legislature did not add anything to what the Constitution imposes.
Governors and lawmakers in other states have decided to give criminals the opportunity to vote more quickly once they are out of custody. Attempts to revise the law in the Minnesota legislature have stalled for years. Lawyers said they had little choice but to pursue a court decision here.
“Now is the time for our state’s highest court to look into using the criminal justice system to perpetuate systemic racial inequalities,” said David McKinney, lawyer at ACLU-MN, who helped Try the challenge. “The practice of disproportionately depriving people of color of their rights is a glaring example that the Minnesota Supreme Court today has a historic opportunity to correct and we hope they will take advantage of it.”
Complainant Elizer Darris spoke after the Supreme Court hearing.
He said he pays taxes, volunteers and makes other contributions to his community. Yet he will only be able to vote in 2025, when his supervised release after a conviction for second degree murder will end.
“I have no say, no voice and no vote,” he said. “Because state law forbids me access. “
A court ruling is expected sometime next year.