rel Checo2 gate mhh.jpg

Checo W. Yancy holds his well-worn Bible in one hand and a letter and certificate of commutation of his life sentence signed by former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. Yancy spent 20 years in Angola and now regularly visits the men inside as a peer mentor and Christian counselor.

MARK H. HUNTER

Two civil rights groups said Tuesday they intend to appeal a Baton Rouge judge's upholding of a 4-decade-old Louisiana law that prohibits felons on probation and parole from voting.

The prohibition affects an estimated 71,000 convicted felons in Louisiana currently on probation or parole.

The 1974 Louisiana Constitution banned people "under an order of imprisonment" for a felony conviction from voting, but a 1976 state law altered the definition of who can vote to exclude felons on probation and parole.

State District Judge Tim Kelley affirmed the challenged law in March but stated he believes it is unfair.

The Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project and New Orleans-based Voice of the Experienced, or VOTE, filed a motion Tuesday in the 19th Judicial District Court informing Kelley of their intention to appeal his ruling. They also asked him to grant them an order of appeal to the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge.

"All across the state, thousands of Louisianians are eager to regain their due voice in the political process," Donita Judge, co-program director of the Power and Democracy Program at Advancement Project's national office, said in a written statement announcing the filing of the appeal notice.

VOTE executive director Norris Henderson said more is at stake in the case than just the legal interpretation of the state Constitution.

"The case also asks the moral question: which Louisianians deserve to have a voice?" he said. "It is time for the courts to protect the fundamental right to vote for all citizens."

Opponents of the '76 law claim the probation and parole restriction infringes on the fundamental rights of felons who may be working and paying taxes.

New Orleanian and Vietnam War veteran Kenneth Johnston, a felon on parole for life and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, counts himself as one of those who has successfully transitioned back into the community after spending 22 years in prison in a 1972 killing.

"I fought a war for this country and I take pride in that sacrifice," he said. "Denying my voting rights is denying my United States citizenship. What's next? Will they take away my service record?"

Attorneys for the state argue that felons on probation or parole are still under an order of imprisonment because they can be sent back to prison if they violate the terms or conditions of the probation or parole.

The civil rights groups say barring felons on parole or probation from voting disproportionately disenfranchises blacks, who make up more than 32 percent of Louisiana's population but account for 50 percent of those on probation and 61 percent of those under parole supervision.

Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.