Felon voting rights: Minnesota Supreme Court makes decision

More than a year after hearing oral arguments, the Minnesota Supreme Court has reached a decision on a highly anticipated case regarding voting rights for convicted felons.

On Wednesday, the state's highest court published its opinion, declining to overturn a Minnesota law (Minnesota Statute 609.165) that bars felons from voting while they're on parole or probation, essentially leaving the decision to the Minnesota Legislature. 

The opinion, written by Justice Paul Thissen, says the plaintiffs did not offer sufficient evidence to prove the statute violates the equal protection principle in the Minnesota Constitution. 

Here's an excerpt from the opinion, which seems to steer in the direction of believing felon voting rights should be restored, but constitutionally the legislature must restore those rights: 

"At the same time, although section 609.165, on the claim raised here, passes constitutional muster, we recognize the 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. The Minnesota Constitution empowers the Legislature to address the public policy concerns raised by appellants in this case; public policy concerns that the Secretary of State shares and that directly implicate — even if section 609.165 does not violate — the fundamental right to vote. We should all take care that persons not be deprived of the ability to participate in the political process out of fear of our fellow citizens."

The legal case centers around restoring the right to vote for people convicted of felonies who have served their jail sentences, while more than 50,000 Minnesotans with active felony records are currently seeking to have their voting rights restored.

The challenge invoked a constitutional argument that requires felons to complete time in custody, and be on supervised release or on probation before they can vote again. Proponents of the lawsuit wanted voting eligibility to automatically be restored upon release from incarceration.

FOX 9’s Courtney Godrey previously spoke with Hamline University professor of political and legal studies David Schultz, who said it was unusual for the decisions to take so long, and that he believed there was a current political desire for the Minnesota Legislature to decide the issue. 

"My suspicion is that it's somewhere between just outright division and reluctance to want to tackle this issue - hoping the Legislature and governor will do it instead," Schultz previously had said.

Currently, the DFL has control of both the Minnesota House and Senate, following the November elections. 

The Minnesota Legislature wasn't waiting for the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision, as a bill aimed at restoring felon voting rights is already moving through the legislative process this year. The Minnesota House passed the bill earlier this month, and now it's being considered by the Senate. 

Proponents of restoring felon voting rights plan to hold a 2 p.m. news conference.