The Minnesota Court of Appeals this week became the second court in two years to reject a lawsuit seeking to restore voting rights to Minnesotans who are on felony probation sentences.
The suit was first filed against Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon in 2019 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota on behalf of four Minnesotans serving long felony probation terms. It placed Simon, a vocal proponent of restoring voting rights to all non-incarcerated felons, in the awkward position of defending the constitutionality of a law he wants changed.
But in an interview Tuesday, Simon said that the Legislature, not the courts, should be the venue for restoring such rights.
“As a person, as an advocate, I strongly favor restoring the right to vote to those who have left prison behind,” Simon said. “I’ve never made any secret of that, and I think Minnesota is happily moving in that direction.”
David McKinney, a staff attorney for the ACLU in Minnesota, said Tuesday that the ACLU would “keep fighting” and appeal this week’s ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“Felony disenfranchisement is one of the enduring and systemic racial disparities in our criminal justice system,” said McKinney. “Depriving people of their right to vote further entrenches these disparities.”
DFL lawmakers have sought unsuccessfully for years to pass legislation that would immediately return the right to vote to Minnesotans released from prison. One of the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Simon, Jennifer Schroeder, became a prominent face in the push for such legislation in 2019 when she shared her story of being unable to vote until 2053 when her 40-year probation term is scheduled to end.
Schroeder is joined by Elizer Darris, Christopher Jecevicus-Varner and Tierre Caldwell, all of whom cannot vote until the end of their own lengthy terms — including a 20-year sentence for Jecevicus-Varner.
The plaintiffs sued Simon in his official capacity as secretary of state, arguing that the prohibition on felon voting is an unconstitutional deprivation “of their fundamental constitutional right to participation in the democratic process.” The plaintiffs argued that the state law violates right-to-vote provisions and equal-protection principles in the Minnesota Constitution as well as violating the Constitution’s due-process clause.
They sought a court declaration that the statute was unconstitutional and that felons may regain their voting rights upon “being released or excused from incarceration.” A Ramsey County judge denied the plaintiffs’ request for such a declaration last year, which a three-judge Court of Appeals panel upheld Monday.
Writing for the panel that heard the case, Judge Matthew Johnson concluded that the state Constitution provided no language requiring the automatic restoration of civil rights once someone is released from jail or prison. Johnson added that the Constitution’s language instead left it up to the executive or legislative branches to determine how felons’ civil rights would be restored.
“Appellants have not identified any law from the territorial era or the early years of statehood under which felons’ civil rights were restored automatically upon release from incarceration,” Johnson wrote.
Support for expanding voting rights for felons on probation or supervised release is broader in the DFL-led House than it is in the Senate, where Republicans in the majority have been more skeptical about its prospects of reducing recidivism.
Yet Simon said Tuesday that he believed “forward progress” had been made on the proposal in Minnesota as well as nationwide. But with competing voting law proposals stalled as the Legislature works to pass a new two-year budget, Simon concedes that this year may again leave proponents of the felony probation voting rights bill disappointed.
“I’m encouraged that ultimately Minnesota can and will get there, get to that outcome,” Simon said. “But there’s no question that there’s an impasse now from the standpoint of the leadership of the various caucuses, and so that impasse makes imminent action unlikely.”
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