University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
new search
page permalink
Case Name Thompson v. Alabama CJ-AL-0015
Docket / Court 2:16-cv-00783-WKW-CSC ( M.D. Ala. )
State/Territory Alabama
Case Type(s) Criminal Justice (Other)
Election/Voting Rights
Case Summary
This case challenges section 177(b) of the Alabama Constitution, which disenfranchises individuals with convictions of felonies "involving moral turpitude." In 1985, the Supreme Court that the 1901 drafters of the Alabama disenfranchisement provision specifically selected the vague and arbitrary " ... read more >
This case challenges section 177(b) of the Alabama Constitution, which disenfranchises individuals with convictions of felonies "involving moral turpitude." In 1985, the Supreme Court that the 1901 drafters of the Alabama disenfranchisement provision specifically selected the vague and arbitrary "moral turpitude" standard in order to disenfranchise blacks. Hunter v. Underwood, 471 U.S. 222 (1985). The provision was therefore unconstitutional and inoperative. But in 1996, Alabama put the exclusion back into its Constitution (though this time limiting it to felony convictions). The scope of the rule is unclear; in 2005, the state attorney general issued an opinion that did little to correct the ambiguity. A crime of “moral turpitude,” he wrote, is “an act of baseness, vileness or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellow men or to society in general.” Whether to allow someone with a felony conviction to register to vote is up to each county's registrar.

This lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, on September 26, 2016, to challenge the exclusion. The plaintiffs filed on behalf of a putative class of unregistered persons otherwise eligible to register to vote in Alabama who were, or who might be in the future, denied the right to vote because of their felony conviction. They were represented by a large consortium of lawyers, including private counsel in Alabama and South Carolina, Public Citizen, the Campaign Legal Center, the Washington DC office of Jenner & Block, voting rights expert and Stanford Professor Pam Karlan, and Georgetown Law's Institute for Public Representation. The defendant was the State of Alabama.

The plaintiffs alleged that Alabama's exclusionary law and practices were racially discriminatory in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act; and that it abridged the fundamental right to vote in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment (fundamental rights equal protection doctrine), the First Amendment, Due Process, and the Ex Post Facto Clause, among other claims. The plaintiffs also complained that the provisions of Alabama law that allowed convicted felons to petition for restoration of their voting rights if they paid any ordered restitution constituted a poll tax. The plaintiffs sought declaratory relief, injunctive relief, and damages.

The case was assigned to Chief Judge William Keith Watkins. On November 16, 2016, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

While the motion to dismiss was pending, the plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction on June 30, 2017. The plaintiffs relied on the fact that on May 25, 2017 the Governor signed the Felony Voter Disqualification Act, House Bill 282 (HB 282), which sought "to put an end to this unconstitutional system by establishing a comprehensive list of crimes that 'involve moral turpitude.'" The plaintiffs argued that HB 282 could enfranchise thousands of eligible voters currently denied the right to vote. As such, the plaintiffs asked the court to compel the defendant to implement HB 282, arguing that the defendant had not taken "any meaningful action to implement HB 282 and advise voters of their rights, including publicizing the new eligibility requirements on the Secretary of State’s website, updating voter registration forms, or issuing guidance to registrars."

The court denied the preliminary injunction on July 28, 2017. The court held that HB 282 clarified whether convictions involved moral turpitude, mooting the plaintiffs' legal challenge of the vagueness § 177(b) and entitling the defendant to a rebuttable presumption that it would not resume unconstitutional activities. Further, the court held that the requested relief was unlike the relief sought in the lawsuit. The court found that the original lawsuit was not about HB 282, nor were the plaintiffs challenging any of HB 282's provisions as unconstitutional. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118606.

Then, on September 28, 2017, the court granted in part and denied in part the defendant' motion to dismiss. The court dismissed the plaintiffs' contentions that Alabama law denied black voters equal opportunity to participate in the political process; denied plaintiffs franchise without a compelling state interest; restricted free speech and association, burdened the right to; disqualified voters without due process; was otherwise vague, arbitrary, and irrational; unconstitutionally imposed a poll tax by requiring plaintiffs to pay any ordered restitution; and disproportionately disenfranchised black citizens compared to white citizens with prior disqualifying convictions. The court allowed claims to stand that Alabama law was racially discriminatory; created retroactive punishment; imposed cruel and unusual punishment; and violated equal protection and required higher scrutiny as to the constitutionality of requiring convicted felons to pay ordered restitution as a condition of re-enfranchisement. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 211512.

On March 1, 2018, the plaintiffs filed a supplemental complaint. This complaint asserted additional claims based on events that post-dated the original complaint. In response, the defendant filed a renewed motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, motion for summary judgment, as well as a motion to dismiss supplemental complaint on March 15, 2018. On April 5, 2018, the plaintiffs filed a cross motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiffs filed a motion to certify the case as a class action on May 10, 2018.
This case was reassigned to Judge Emily C. Marks on August 8, 2018.

The court denied the defendant' renewed motion to dismiss on Dec. 3, 2019. Stating that a renewed motion to dismiss is "generally granted only if there is newly-discovered evidence or a manifest error of law or fact," the court found that the defendant had established neither. On the same day, the court denied the plaintiffs’ cross motion for summary judgment, finding the claim at issue--an allegation that the state form and the instructions for the federal form violate the NVRA because the forms must include eligibility information (count 18 of the complaint)--to be moot. For the same reason, the court granted in part the motion to dismiss the supplemental complaint. 428 F.Supp.3d 1296.

On Jan. 24, 2020, the court denied the motion for class certification, holding that the proposed class was insufficiently ascertainable and that use of the class action device was not necessary to adjudicate the claim. 2020 WL 411985.

The plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction on May 27, 2020. Stating that the 11th Circuit decision about Florida felony enfranchisement, Jones v. Desantis, 950 F.3d 795 (11th Cir. 2020), squarely controls this case, the plaintiffs claimed that they are likely to succeed on their Equal Protection wealth discrimination claim. (For more on Jones v. Desantis see its Clearinghouse case summary. Absent the court’s order “enjoining the Board from enforcing the legal financial obligations requirement against those who are genuinely unable to pay”, plaintiffs here claimed, “citizens like plaintiffs ...who cannot afford to pay their legal financial obligations in full before the upcoming elections will suffer irreparable injury because they are unconstitutionally denied their right to vote on the basis of wealth.”

This case is ongoing.

Saeeda Joseph-Charles - 11/15/2016
Virginia Weeks - 01/31/2018
Bogyung Lim - 06/03/2020


compress summary

- click to show/hide ALL -
Issues and Causes of Action
click to show/hide detail
Issues
Constitutional Clause
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Due Process
Equal Protection
Ex Post Facto
Defendant-type
Jurisdiction-wide
Discrimination-basis
Race discrimination
General
Disparate Impact
Disparate Treatment
Voting
Voting access
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Race
Black
Voting
Voter qualifications
Voter registration rules
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Ex parte Young (federal or state officials)
Voting Rights Act, section 2, 52 U.S.C. § 10301 (previously 42 U.S.C. § 1973)
Defendant(s) State of Alabama
Plaintiff Description Several unregistered persons otherwise eligible to register to vote in Alabama who have been denied the right to vote because they were convicted of crimes of moral turpitude. Class status has been denied.
Class action status sought Yes
Class action status granted Pending
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party None Yet / None
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief None yet
Source of Relief None yet
Filed 09/26/2016
Case Ongoing Yes
Additional Resources
click to show/hide detail
  See this case at CourtListener.com (May provide additional documents and, for active cases, real-time alerts)
  Thompson v. Alabama
CLC
Date: Dec. 3, 2019
By: CLC (Campaign Legal Center (CLC))
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

Court Docket(s)
M.D. Ala. 2:16-cv-783
CJ-AL-0015-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 05/27/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
M.D. Ala.
Class-Action Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief [ECF# 1]
CJ-AL-0015-0001.pdf | Detail
Date: 09/26/2016
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
M.D. Ala.
Memorandum Opinion and Order [ECF# 72] (2017 WL 3223915)
CJ-AL-0015-0002.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 07/28/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
M.D. Ala.
Memorandum Opinion and Order [ECF# 80] (2017 WL 6597511)
CJ-AL-0015-0003.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 12/26/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
M.D. Ala.
Plaintiffs' Supplemental Class-Action Complaint For Declaratory and Injunctive Relief [ECF# 93]
CJ-AL-0015-0005.pdf | Detail
Date: 03/01/2018
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
M.D. Ala.
Memorandum Opinion and Order [ECF# 178, 178-1] (428 F.Supp.3d 1296)
CJ-AL-0015-0004.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 12/03/2019
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
show all people docs
Judges Doyle, Stephen Michael Court not on record show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Marks, Emily Coody (M.D. Ala.) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0004 | CJ-AL-0015-9000
Watkins, William Keith (M.D. Ala.) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0002 | CJ-AL-0015-0003
Plaintiff's Lawyers Amunson, Jessica Ring (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0001 | CJ-AL-0015-0005 | CJ-AL-0015-9000
Blacksher, James U. (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0001 | CJ-AL-0015-0005 | CJ-AL-0015-9000
Danahy, Molly (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Derfner, Armand Georges (South Carolina) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0001 | CJ-AL-0015-0005 | CJ-AL-0015-9000
Francois, Aderson B. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0001 | CJ-AL-0015-0005 | CJ-AL-0015-9000
Gaber, Mark P. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Hebert, J. Gerald (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Herbert, J. Gerald (Virginia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0001 | CJ-AL-0015-0005
Hipp, Jason P (New York) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Karlan, Pamela S. (California) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0001 | CJ-AL-0015-0005 | CJ-AL-0015-9000
Lang, Danielle (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0001 | CJ-AL-0015-0005 | CJ-AL-0015-9000
Llewellyn, Patrick D. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0001 | CJ-AL-0015-9000
McGuire, Joseph Mitchell (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-0001 | CJ-AL-0015-0005 | CJ-AL-0015-9000
Stewart, Michael E. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Yun, Jennifer J. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Brasher, Andrew Lynn (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Chynoweth, Brad A. (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Davis, James William (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Fairbanks, Philip G (Kentucky) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Howell, Laura Elizabeth (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Mangan, Mary (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Messick, Misty Shawn Fairbanks (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Sinclair, Winfield J. (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Other Lawyers Ayers, Marc James (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000
Weller, Christopher W. (Alabama) show/hide docs
CJ-AL-0015-9000

- click to show/hide ALL -

new search
page permalink

- top of page -