Why the voting rights of more than 50,000 Minnesota residents may depend on how the state Supreme Court applies a unique legal test

Prosecutors in a case filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday believe the state should restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies once they are released from custody.

Both Secretary of State Steve Simon and Attorney General Keith Ellison personally agree with this assertion – that waiting for them to be released on probation or parole before voting rights are restored is counterproductive to the goal of rehabilitation.

But in their official positions—such as the people running the Minnesota elections in a row and defending the state against lawsuits—Simon and Ellison have both argued against restoring voting rights to criminals upon release from prison.

“Whether the rights should have been restored earlier is certainly a matter of debate,” Assistant Attorney General Angela Byrnes said. “And if this is a hearing before a legislative committee, it is likely that the two parties are allied.” But the state argued that changing the law by order of the court was outside the jurisdiction of the court.

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the case, Jennifer Schroeder et al vs. Secretary of State Steve SimonSubmitted 2 years ago by the ACLU of Minnesota and attorneys from Faegre Baker Daniels. The basic claim is that state law denies criminals who are no longer in prison or imprisoned the right to vote without a rational basis. Because voting is a fundamental right—and because those affected by the law are disproportionate people of color—it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which He says that people in similar circumstances should be reciprocated by law.

Secretary of State Steve Simon

MinnPost photo by Greta Cole

Secretary of State Steve Simon

In contrast to those still in prison, the 52,000 Minnesota residents who are currently on probation, parole or supervised living in the communities in which they work, or attend school, are members of churches and community groups. The plaintiffs argue that participation in government by voting helps reintegrate them and aids in rehabilitation, which is the stated goal of the contested 1963 law.

“The legislature has not articulated literally any reason or interest in denying people the right to vote in community oversight,” said Craig Coleman, partner at Faegre. “It’s totally arbitrary.”

However, the state triumphed in both the district court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals, with judges at both levels finding that criminals had no fundamental right to vote—and that the state showed rationale for changing the 1963 law.

“By enacting[the Act]the Legislature demonstrated a clear legitimate policy objective to ‘promote the defendant’s rehabilitation and return to his community as an effective participating citizen’ by automatically restoring civil rights to persons convicted of felonies after their sentence has expired,” the district court judge wrote. Ramsay Laura Nelson in her judgment.

Nelson wrote that the ACLU made compelling arguments about the disproportionate impact of the state system on communities of color. The lawsuit stated that African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos are guilty of felonies at rates beyond their share of the state’s population, and thus are likely to be without voting rights. “Ultimately, this is an issue that must be addressed by the legislature,” Nelson wrote.

Associate Justice Natalie E. Hudson

Associate Justice Natalie E. Hudson

State Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson voiced a similar opinion on Tuesday. “It seems to me that the distinctions you ask us to draw are distinctions better left to the legislature to draw,” Hudson said.

Coleman said the Court is “the ultimate protector of constitutional rights, particularly with regard to the right to vote. It is of paramount importance that this Court be the refuge of the disenfranchised.”

Coleman also argued that his clients appeared before the legislature year after year to demand reforms to the 1963 Act, only to be rejected. While there is majority support in the House of Representatives, where the DFL has a majority control, reform bills have not moved in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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Since the case was filed, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has set the probationary period for most felonies at five years. But these changes took effect in August 2020 and do not apply retroactively, meaning they do not help the specific plaintiffs in the court case. Schroeder, for example, spent one year in drug possession, but was given a 40-year period of probation. Now Schroeder, as a drug abuse counselor, will not be allowed to vote until she is 71.

Coleman’s argument relied heavily on the 1991 Minnesota Supreme Court case, State vs. Russell, where the court rejected a criminal law that imposes heavier penalties for possession of crack or base cocaine than for powder cocaine. Because crack cocaine was predominantly used by black Americans while powder was used predominantly by whites, the court relied on the Equal Protection Clause to find that the state had shown no rationale for the difference in provision, and the law was unconstitutional due to its disparate effect on blacks.

This case also applied Minnesota’s unique “enhanced rational basis” test, which says that if a law has a disparate effect on people of color and a state cannot demonstrate a race-neutral rational basis for it, a court can invalidate the law without giving its natural respect to the legislature.

Justice Rosalie Wahl wrote in the Russell decision: “It seems to me that the critical importance of racial equality in our multicultural society calls for this meticulously designed adjustment.” “When a face-neutral criminal law is shown to produce an unintended discriminatory effect on the basis of race, it is necessary to take a different approach to applying our rationale test. In this context, we may apply our rationale test with less respect than we generally provide to legislation.”

Coleman said that while black Minnesota residents make up 4 percent of the voting-age population, they make up 20 percent of people disenfranchised under current state law. And although American Indians make up less than 1 percent of the voting-age population, they make up 7 percent of those on probation and parole. Hispanics make up 2.5 percent of the voting-age population, but 6 percent are still waiting to regain their voting rights.

However, Coleman said the law does not meet the less rigorous court tests of a strict rationale. “This scheme fails on all but the most toothless forms of constitutional review,” he said.

Byrnes of the attorney general’s office argued that the state constitution provides for those convicted of felonies to be denied the right to vote until those rights are restored. The plaintiffs are not challenging the validity of this constitutional provision, only the manner in which the legislature has applied it.

Prior to 1963, restoring rights required people who had finished their sentence to petition the governor. After the passage, voting rights were automatically restored when all aspects of the sentence were completed – which includes the probationary period, prison time and parole, which in Minnesota is referred to as supervised release.

“Never in Minnesota’s history has the restoration been made before the sentence was completed,” said Byrnes.

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“The court must confirm (lower court rulings) because the appellants’ claims are based on a fundamental right prohibited by the Constitution, which is the right to vote before a felony sentence is completed.” Burns said.

Several judges questioned Burns about whether they should not consider how the Criminal Vote Restoration Act could exacerbate disparities in the criminal justice system. “Why are we ignoring it?” asked Judge Ann McCaig.

“The appellants identified real concerns that those in the criminal justice system should continue to look at them,” Burns said. But it is not an issue that can be traced back to the statute. If the law is gone, the disparities will remain… The constitution is what deprives him of his rights. The law relieves this constitutional burden.”

Eliezer Darris and Ramsey County District Attorney John Choi at the press conference on Tuesday.

MinnPost Photo by Peter Callahan

Prosecutor Eliezer Darris and Ramsey County District Attorney John Choi at the press conference Tuesday.

Hudson later noted the large number of Friends Briefs supporting the ACLU’s cause, arguing that if the purpose of the 1963 law was to promote rehabilitation, its effect was the opposite.

“If the goal is rehabilitation, it doesn’t get it done,” Hudson said. “Even the probation officers and the Ramsey County District Attorney’s office are saying if you want to rehabilitate people, the best way is to get them back into the community again. And voting is a big part of that.”

Byrnes said that the 1963 law expanded the scope for re-grant suffrage. There is compatibility between what the legislature has done and the stated purpose. Rational basis, even an aggravated rationale basis does not require the legislature to justify all laws it has not passed.”

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She said states that reform laws governing the voting rights of released offenders come from legislatures and through voter initiatives, not from the courts. 21 states allow people to vote once they are released from prison. The District of Columbia, Maine, and Vermont never revoke voting rights, even for those in prison.

Chief Justice Laurie Gildia said the court would issue its ruling “in due course”.

After oral arguments, Eliezer Dries, one of the plaintiffs named in the suit, said he won’t regain his right to vote until 2025 but has volunteered on campaigns, pushes voters to the polls, knocks on doors, organizes forums and testifies before the state legislature.

“However, when it’s all said and done, I can’t get enough of that little red sticker that says ‘I voted’.”

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