This week, the First Circuit Court of Appeals will hold oral arguments to decide whether the 70,000 Louisianans who are currently on probation or parole have the right to vote under our state constitution. As professors of constitutional law, we urge the court to uphold this fundamental right and allow every eligible Louisianan to participate in our democracy.
This case turns on the interpretation of a few short words in the 1974 Louisiana Constitution. Like every other state, our constitution explicitly guarantees the right to vote to every citizen of Louisiana. Our constitution also provides, however, that this right can be suspended for people who are “under order of imprisonment.” After voters approved the 1974 Constitution, the legislature passed a law denying the right to vote not just to people who are actually behind bars, but also to Louisianans on probation or parole. This law directly conflicts with the plain language of the Constitution. The state, however, claims otherwise.
Fortunately, Louisiana case law is clear. Our courts will protect everyone’s fundamental constitutional rights unless it is obvious that the rights were specifically and intentionally taken away. In this case, that means that the Court of Appeals should interpret the words “under order of imprisonment” to apply only to people who are actually incarcerated.
In deciding this case, the Court of Appeals should consider the importance of voting to the drafters of the 1974 Constitution. The 1974 Constitution represents a significant and important break with Louisiana’s past constitutions, which in law and practice deliberately excluded racial minorities from voting in Louisiana. Today, African-Americans are currently the single largest racial group of the 70,000 people currently on probation or parole, constituting 49.8 percent of probation, 60 percent of good time parole, and 60 percent of paroled populations respectively. Through its decision in this case, the Court of Appeals can honor the intent of the 1974 Constitution to ensure that all Louisiana citizens are equal participants in our democracy.
The right to vote is uniquely precious and sacred. If the legislature is committed to disenfranchising probationers and parolees, it should use the established procedures to amend the Constitution and put the issue squarely before Louisiana voters. In the meantime, the Court of Appeals should protect the 1974 Constitution as it currently is written.
professors, Loyola University College of Law