MN Supreme Court defers to lawmakers on felon voting rights

Courts building
The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to restore voting rights to people with felony records who still haven’t satisfied parole or probation.
Elizabeth Stawicki for MPR News

Updated 3:30 p.m.

Minnesota’s Supreme Court declined to restore voting rights to people with felony records who still haven’t satisfied parole or probation.

In a decision issued Wednesday, Justice Paul Thissen concluded, “There may be many compelling reasons why society should not permanently prohibit—or perhaps prohibit at all — persons convicted of a felony from voting. But the people of Minnesota made the choice to establish a constitutional baseline that persons convicted of a felony are not entitled or permitted to vote, and the people of Minnesota have not seen fit to amend the constitution to excise the felon voting prohibition.”

He also wrote that a corresponding state law passed constitutional muster even if there are “troubling consequences, including the disparate racial impacts, flowing from the disenfranchisement of persons convicted of a felony. The Legislature retains the power to respond to those consequences.”

It was a 6-1 decision, with only Justice Natalie Hudson dissenting.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

"I regret that the court limits the ability of the Minnesota Constitution’s equal protection principle to address this injustice,” Hudson wrote in her dissent. “The right to vote is too central to our democracy, and the constraints on that right are too perilous, for us to ignore."

While it’s a legal setback for those who had hoped the court would rule that voting rights must be restored as soon as incarceration ends, the long-awaited ruling comes as state lawmakers are moving to pass a bill that would return voting eligibility to thousands of people this summer.

"I am angry at this decision," said Jennifer Schroeder, the lead plaintiff whose 40 years of probation from a 2013 drug conviction will leave her ineligible to vote until she's 71 years old. She's now an addiction counselor.

"By ruling against our case, the Minnesota Supreme Court has said that what I am doing and who I am is not enough, I am not good enough," Schroeder said.

Minnesota Supreme Court justices had been mulling the case since hearing it in November 2021 — an unusually-long lag between oral arguments and a decision.

The case has been working its way through Minnesota’s courts since a group of people with felony records sued in October 2019. A district court and the appeals court ruled that the Minnesota Constitution dictates that a felon is not entitled to vote “unless restored to civil rights.” 

A 1963 state law spelled that out to mean when all aspects of a person’s sentence has run.

The key question has been where that trigger point fell. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that long-duration probation was unfairly holding people back and that architects of the constitution were mainly focused on disenfranchising felons behind bars.

Supporters of the legal fight say the laws disproportionately affect people of color because they make up a greater share of felons on community supervision or other forms of probation. The case created a complicated situation for DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon and DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison, both of whom want quicker rights restoration but who argued in court for upholding the law.

“While our office defended the law as it is currently written, I believe that the policy is long overdue for a correction,” Simon said in a statement after the court ruled. “If a person is deemed by a judge or jury to be worthy enough and safe enough to live in our community, then it is entirely reasonable to allow that person to have a say about who governs them.”

Opponents of a shift argue that criminals with more wealth and better legal representation are more likely to stay out of prison altogether, which could lead to disparities as well. They also say loss of voting rights is a fair consequence of serious crime.

In the absence of a ruling, Minnesota lawmakers have been working to change the law to restore voting rights upon release from incarceration. 

The DFL-led House passed a bill earlier this month that could immediately give as many as 50,000 people voting rights again. A mirroring Senate bill awaits a final vote.

Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, said during the debate on the House floor that it’s unfair to victims of crimes as serious as homicide to let their perpetrators vote again.

“I believe in redemption. I believe in the second chance. Those people don’t get a second chance,” Novotny said of homicide victims. “What about them?”

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, who carried the bill in the House, said that the court's ruling affirms that acting as a Legislature is the right path forward.

"I'm hopeful that it's going to pass off the Senate floor, and it will be to the governor soon," Frazier said. "And we'll just codify these rights. I think that's the Legislature's prerogative, and we're going to take that action to session."

Gov. Tim Walz has said he will sign the bill.

Minnesota wouldn’t be the first to take the step to speed up voting eligibility. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states automatically restore voting rights upon a person’s release from prison. Others do so after a waiting period. Only 11 carry an indefinite revocation or require completion of all aspects of a sentence.

Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, who supports granting past felons voting rights sooner, said there's an upside to a Supreme Court ruling that didn't go his way. He said the bill lawmakers are close to enacting would be on firmer legal footing, given the ruling's deference to the Legislature.

"Essentially what the court did today is create a safe harbor for the Legislature to continue to move this forward. Of course, we were hoping for a different result," Martin said. "But the fact that they punted it back to the Legislature clearly gives lawmakers the ability now to move forward with those bills, full steam ahead."