NEW ORLEANS — Laws that prohibit felons on parole or probation from voting do not violate Louisiana’s constitution, a state appeal court ruled Friday.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by eight felons and the nonprofit organization Voice of the Ex-Offender.

At issue is language in the state constitution guaranteeing the right to vote, but allowing suspension of voting rights for those “under an order of imprisonment” for a felony.

The lawsuit claims felons on parole or probation are no longer under an imprisonment order.

A three-judge 1st Circuit panel disagreed. Felons on parole or probation are still in a “custodial” setting and still serving part of a criminal sentence, Judge Toni Higginbotham wrote in the main opinion, joined by Judge Allison Penzato. “Plaintiffs’ understanding of the constitutional phrase as meaning only physical imprisonment would lead to absurd results, because it disregards that a person can legally be under an order of imprisonment without being physically in prison.” Higginbotham wrote.

An advocacy group called Voice of the Ex-Offender said in a news release that a state Supreme Court appeal is planned.

“The judges seeing this case so far are upholding a law that we know is unconstitutional,” VOTE director Norris Henderson said in the release. “The Louisiana Supreme Court is best positioned to right this wrong.”

Judge Guy Holdridge added a partial dissent in Friday’s opinion. He agreed that an order of imprisonment extends to those on parole. But, he said the case should be sent back to the district court for arguments on issues involving people on probation with a suspended prison sentence.

In such cases, Holdridge said, the courts need to determine “whether, under a suspended sentence, does the ‘order of imprisonment’ begin when the sentence is imposed and the defendant is placed on probation or does the ‘order of imprisonment’ begin when the defendant’s probation is revoked and the trial court sentences the defendant to a prison term for violating his probation.”

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KEVIN McGILL
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