In 1901, Alabama passed a constitution that stripped voting rights from any person who committed a “crime involving moral turpitude.” The purpose of this disenfranchisement, the president of the convention explained, was to “establish white supremacy in this state”; Alabama labelled those offenses more frequently committed by blacks as crimes “involving moral turpitude” in order to purge minorities from the voter rolls. In 1985, the Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the “moral turpitude” provision as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. But 11 years later, the state quietly reinserted the same words into its felony disenfranchisement law. Today, the statute has helped to disenfranchise 250,000 Alabamans, most of them black. Indeed, a stunning 15 percent of otherwise qualified black voters in Alabama can’t cast a ballot because of the state’s felony disenfranchisement law. A new lawsuit spearheaded by the Campaign Legal Center argues that the statute is a gross violation of Alabamans’ rights under both the Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.
Their ambitious suit—which is joined by influential Alabama litigators, the white-shoe firm Jenner and Block, and voting rights luminary Pamela Karlan—combines conventional legal arguments with innovative constitutional theories in order to try to demonstrate that Alabama’s law contravenes the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment, as well as the 15th Amendment, the 24th Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act.
On Tuesday, I spoke with Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, about the suit she helped to architect. Our interview has been edited and condensed.