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Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Justice Bernette J. Johnson speaks during the disciplinary hearing for Judge James Best and Judge J. Robin Free, of the 18th Judicial District Court, in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, May 3, 2016.

A Louisiana law that takes effect in March and will allow felons who have been out of prison for five years to register to vote — despite remaining on probation or parole — doesn't go far enough to address state laws that "unconstitutionally disenfranchise" its citizens, Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson says.

Johnson's written comments came in a dissent Monday as the state high court denied an appeal filed by a group of felons who challenged a 1976 Louisiana law that barred felons on probation or parole from voting.

While that case was on appeal, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law on May 31 a measure allowing felons who've been out of prison for five years, but remain on probation or parole, to register to vote.

Johnson acknowledged Monday that the recently passed measure provides an exception to voter registration ineligibility for certain probationers and parolees. However, she said, "numerous citizens on probation and parole will continue to be disenfranchised even after the amended law goes into effect" because of the five-year waiting period.

"While I am in favor of this attempt to restore voting rights to probationers and parolees, I am of the opinion that the clear language of our constitution already provides the right to vote to all probationers and parolees because they are not incarcerated," she stated.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections says some 2,200 offenders have been under the Division of Probation and Parole's supervision for five years or more — about 3 percent of the more than 70,000 people on probation or parole for felony crimes.

Johnson cast the lone dissent in the appeal filed by a group called Voice of the Experienced, or VOTE.

The 1974 Louisiana Constitution prohibits people “under an order of imprisonment” on a felony conviction from voting. A 1976 state law expanded that to people convicted of felonies and still on probation or parole.

State District Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, affirmed the law last year, and the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal let his ruling stand in April.

Johnson said the state Supreme Court’s denial Monday of VOTE’s appeal means that “these citizens will continue to be excluded from our democratic process.”

The 1st Circuit, she said, reasoned that a felon on probation or parole is clearly under an order of imprisonment because he is still in a custodial setting and still serving a portion of a criminal sentence.

“I cannot agree,” Johnson wrote. “In my view, incarceration must be distinguished from parole and probation, and a criminal sentence does not equate to an order of imprisonment.”

She noted that the phrase “under an order of imprisonment” does not appear in Louisiana’s Code of Criminal Procedure.

The state argued in the VOTE case that because probationers and parolees can be sent back to prison if they violate the terms or conditions of their probation or parole, they are under an order of imprisonment. Johnson disagrees with that position.

“While parolees and probationers are under the threat of imprisonment, they are not under `orders of imprisonment.’ Parolees and probationers must commit some volitional act or omission to trigger the custodial sentence and a return to physical custody,” she said.

Johnson went on to say there is “no legitimate reason for disenfranchising these citizens.” The plaintiffs in the VOTE case include a Vietnam War veteran, construction worker, law school graduate, college graduate, hospice volunteer, two deacons and a minister, she said.

“Yet these tax-paying citizens have no voice in the political life of their communities and are excluded from our democratic process because they are denied the right to choose their elected officials,” the chief justice wrote. “This problem is not unique to Louisiana. Six million Americans cannot vote due to a felony conviction.”

She added that people of color are disproportionately impacted by such voting restrictions.

Some 24 states have modified felony disenfranchisement laws and regulations since 1997, Johnson said, which has resulted in roughly 840,000 citizens regaining their right to vote.


Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.