After his conviction, Cotton became a jail house lawyer. He sued Mississippi prison officials asking for money to compensate him for having to prove his legal mail did not contain drugs. (Cotton v. Taylor (5th Cir. 1994) 37 F.3d 632.) This request was denied. (Ibid.) A few years later, he brought suit complaining that he wasn’t allowed to request a change in his prison job assignment. (Cotton v. Hargett (5th Cir. 1995) 68 F.3d 465.) The court described this claim as “frivolous” and warned Cotton not to file more appeals like it. (Id. at p. *1) Cotton continued to sue, and actually won $2,000 after complaining about a leaky prison roof. (Cotton v. Taylor (N.D. Miss. 1997) 1997 WL 560875.) Prison officials, however, appealed,
Cotton brought another case, but the grounds for his complaint are not clear. The new case went to the Fifth Circuit in 1998. They decided they had enough of Cotton’s lawsuits, which they described again as frivolous. (Cotton v. Fordice (5th Cir. 1998) 136 F.3d 1329, *1 [“Cotton has had three dismissals as frivolous by the district court and/or this court.”] They barred him from filing further appeals except in rare circumstances. (Ibid.) Cotton asked the Supreme Court of the United States to take his case. They declined. (Cotton v. Fordice (1998) 119 S.Ct. 214.)
The Voting Rights Case
Cotton’s next lawsuit was a big one. He filed a civil rights action asserting that Mississippi unconstitutionally disenfranchised him. He brought the suit with another man, Keith Brown, who was in prison for an armed robbery. Michelle Alexander is a civil rights attorney; this may be how Cotton came to Alexander’s attention.
The case was not argued by a lawyer. Brown argued it himself. The trial court ruled that the complaint was so lacking in merit that it would be a waste of a jury’s time to hear. In other words, no reasonable jury could find for Cotton and Brown. The court dismissed the case. Cotton and Brown appealed. (Cotton v. Fordice (1998) 157 F.3d 388.) Cotton’s appeal was dismissed as frivolous, since the court had already warned him not to file further lawsuits like this. (Id. at fn. 1.)
Brown made an interesting claim, one that’s relevant to Alexander’s arguments. Her core claim, after all, is that felon disenfranchisement was done to create a “new Jim Crow”; an underclass of convicted black men without voting rights. Brown makes the same argument in his appeal. He says that Mississippi’s felon disenfranchisement law “was originally drafted with the intent to disenfranchise blacks.” (Cotton v. Fordice (1998) 157 F.3d at 392.) Mississippi conceded that the law “was enacted in an area when southern states discriminated against blacks by disenfranchising convicts for crimes that, it was thought, were committed primarily by blacks. (Id.) Interestingly, the Mississippi Supreme Court itself held that the disenfranchisement law discriminated against blacks. (Ratliff v. Beale (1896) 74 Miss. 247 [the law “swept the circle of expedients to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race.”].) It took the Mississippi courts six years to recognize the law’s “odious origin.” (Fordice, supra, 157 F.3d. at p. 391.)
If the 1890 law were applied to disenfranchise Brown, I think we can all agree that the law should be struck down. Indeed, it was a shameful blot on Mississippi when it was passed, and it is still a shameful memory. But the Fifth Circuit considered the fact that the law was overhauled in 1950.
Section 241, as enacted in 1890, was amended in 1950, removing “burglary” from the list of disenfranchising crimes. Then, in 1968, the state broadened the provision by adding “murder” and “rape”—crimes historically excluded from the list because they were not considered “black” crimes. Amending § 241 was a deliberative process. Both houses of the state legislature had to approve the amendment by a two-thirds vote. The Mississippi Secretary of State was then required to publish a full-text version of § 241, as revised, at least two weeks before the popular election. Finally, a majority of the voters had to approve the entire provision, including the revision. Because Mississippi’s procedure resulted both in 1950 and in 1968 in a re-enactment of § 241, each amendment superseded the previous provision and removed the discriminatory taint associated with the original version.(Fordice, supra, 157 F.3d at p. 391 [internal citations omitted].)
Although Brown had proved that the 1890 law discriminated in an unconstitutional way, he did not prove that the current law was unconstitutional. (Id. at p. 392.) Moreover, he did not even offer evidence that the current law discriminates against blacks. (Id. at fn. 9.) The Fifth Circuit then affirmed the dismissal of the case.
Cotton Keeps Suing
The same year that the Fifth Circuit decided against him, Cotton sued again. He claimed that he was denied parole based on his race. The trial court rejected this claim without even discussing it. (Cotton v. Booker (5th Cir. 1998) 166F.3d 341, *1.) The Fifth Circuit remanded the case to them to provide a justification. (Ibid.) It is unclear what happened on the second go-round in the trial court.
Cotton Gets Out