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Prisoner Education Guide

Alabama Felon Disenfranchisement Limited

The Alabama Supreme Court has voided a Jefferson County Circuit Court’s order that prohibited the state from disenfranchising former prisoners until every felony involving the element of moral turpitude had been catalogued by the state legislature.

The ruling resulted from an appeal filed by the Alabama Secretary of State. The underlying complaint was a putative class action suit involving the voting rights of former prisoners who had been convicted of felony offenses. That action concerned the Secretary of State’s application of the June 1996 ratification of Amendment 579 to the Alabama Constitution, §177, which only disenfranchised felons convicted of crimes involving “moral turpitude” rather than all felons.

The lead plaintiffs in the case were prohibited from registering to vote due to DUI convictions. Under a March 18, 2005 opinion from the Attorney General, that crime and many others were not classified as involving moral turpitude; nonetheless, the Secretary of State continued its policy of disenfranchising all felons regardless of offense. Finding the new law was unconstitutionally vague because it failed to denote moral turpitude, the Circuit Court ordered that all felons who were otherwise qualified to vote be allowed to vote. The court also granted the plaintiffs attorney fees.

The Alabama Supreme Court held the Circuit Court’s order was erroneous, as no justifiable controversy existed. The Circuit Court had focused on what crimes involved moral turpitude. The Supreme Court, however, found that “this case does not involve a dispute about how to distinguish between felonies that involve moral turpitude and those that do not; instead, it involves the Secretary of State … ignoring the distinction altogether and not attempting to apply the clear language of § 177.” Thus, the Circuit Court had no authority to enter an order concerning the narrower issue of defining crimes of moral turpitude.

In the midst of this litigation, the Secretary of State, under the direction of the Attorney General’s office, voluntarily discontinued its practice of disenfranchising all felons. As the intervening Attorney General is the state’s chief law enforcement officer, the Supreme Court held there was “no reasonable likelihood that the wrong will be repeated.” Thus, the mootness rule applied.

Applying these principles to the facts at issue, the Alabama Supreme Court found the Circuit Court’s order was void. Because no judgment could ensue, the award of attorney’s fees was vacated.

While the ruling was disappointing to some it was also a step forward. “Now we have a ruling requiring state officials to follow the law and permit eligible felons to vote,” said Ryan Haygood, associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represented the plaintiffs in the voting rights suit. See: Chapman v. Gooden, 974 So.2d 972 (Ala. 2007).

Related legal case

Chapman v. Gooden


 

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