Tennessee Supreme Court rules in felony voting rights case
State’s high court rules against man who gained clemency in Virginia for felony, but was denied voter registration in Tennessee
The Tennessee Supreme Court Building in Nashville, Tennessee, is the historic building that houses the Tennessee Supreme Court offices and where the court meets when it is in session in Nashville. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. (Getty Images)
The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that a person whose voting rights are restored in another state after being convicted of a felony there must also prove payment of court costs and other fees in order to vote here.
Ernest Falls, convicted of a felony in Virginia, served his sentence there and later moved to Tennessee. After the move, his Virginia citizenship and voting rights were restored, but that wasn’t enough for Tennessee to allow him to vote in 2020, the state’s high court ruled on June 29 in a 3-1 decision. The case drew interest from Tennessee law professors and the state’s League of Women Voters, concerned over difficulties people convicted of felonies have in trying to get voting rights restored.
State laws barring people convicted of felonies from voting affect millions of Americans, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Most states forbid convicted felons from voting while they are incarcerated, but they may regain voting rights upon their release or at some point thereafter.
Tennessee’s constitution recognizes the importance of the right to vote, but also says the state legislature may limit the right of people convicted of felonies to vote.
Falls was convicted in 1986 in Virginia of involuntary manslaughter, completed his sentence in 1987 and in 2018 moved to Tennessee. In Feb. 2020, then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam granted him clemency, which would have allowed him to vote in Virginia.
Falls tried to register to vote in Tennessee in June 2020, citing the Virginia clemency grant, but county election officials told him he also had to prove he didn’t owe any outstanding court costs, restitution and child support, as required under a second state statute. Falls didn’t have the required proof, the majority opinion said, also noting in a footnote there was no evidence that Falls owed any fees, restitution or child support.
Falls sued to contest the decision, represented by attorneys in Tennessee and with the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a voting rights advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Lower courts backed the election officials and the case reached the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments last fall.
Three of Tennessee’s five Supreme Court justices agreed that both state statutes applied in Falls’s case, which centered on how judges should interpret the two. One possible way was to read both together because both dealt with the same subject matter, which a legislature could address through laws that changed over time. A second possibility was to read the laws separately, with each statute standing on its own.
The court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins and joined in by two other justices, aimed to “clarify and reconcile” the two statutes, a news release from Tennessee’s administrative office of the courts said. The court held that Falls had to “comply with the provisions of both statutes,” rejecting Falls’s argument that his right to vote should have been restored immediately when he received his grant of clemency in Virginia, the release said.
“Instead, the Court held that the grant of clemency created the possibility that Mr. Falls could regain the right to vote but that he would still be subjected to other requirements imposed by the legislature,” the release said.
Justice Sharon Lee dissented. She agreed with Falls “that the grant of clemency in Virginia should have enabled him to vote in Tennessee,” the news release said. “Falls didn’t have to show he paid all costs, restitution and child support because he had had his right to vote restored through the grant of clemency.”
Justice Sarah K. Campbell was appointed to the state Supreme Court in Feb. 2022 and did not participate in the case.
The Campaign Legal Center said in a news release that it was “deeply disappointed in the decision.”
The CLC agreed with Falls’s argument that the Tennessee statute on clemency, passed in 1981, meant that the grant of clemency in Virginia automatically reinstated Falls’s right to vote in Tennessee.
“Tennesseans with felony convictions, including out-of-state convictions, who need help with their voting rights can visit RestoreYourVote.org for free and confidential assistance,” the CLC news release said.
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