Public Defenders Restore Citizenship and Voting Rights in Memphis

“I really feel like I’m actually a free  person now.  Like I’m actually able to be a constructive and positive person in the community. Now I can do more work in the community that I wasn’t able to do prior to this. You never realize what these issues are until you lose these rights.  You don’t realize.  This restoration to my rights is restoring my life, as well, and I just thank God for this day.”

Lewis Anderson, Restoration of Citizenship Client

Lewis Anderson (far left) having his voting rights restored before a Shelby County Chancery Court.
Lewis Anderson (far left) having his voting rights restored before Shelby County Circuit Court.

It’s been 13 years since Lewis Anderson left the penitentiary.  He served his time for a felony conviction and walked straight into community service. He is now a church deacon who provides street ministry to those experiencing homelessness.

Anderson said he found religion inside the walls of a prison. His niece, Fayette Washington, is a church pastor and works in prison ministry.  She was a guide to Anderson during his incarceration and since his release. This past week, Washington served as his character witness before the judge so that her uncle could have his rights restored.

“Having your full citizenship is important. You want to make sure you’re right with everything. If you’re out helping other people in the community, you want your own papers in order,” said Washington.

Anderson was one of three men who have had full citizenship rights restored as part of a new clinic for the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. In Tennessee, loss of citizenship from a felony conviction means you can’t vote, can’t run for office and can’t serve as a guardian or trustee. Restoring these rights requires coordination between the public defender’s office, the district attorney’s office, the courts and the Shelby County Election Commission. It’s an arduous process that can take weeks to complete, because rights restoration has been attempted so infrequently in Shelby County.

This is not the story in many states across the country.  According to the Brennan Center at the New York University of School of Law, a vast majority of states restore voting rights after completion of a sentence.  In fact, Maine and Vermont never strip people of voting rights for criminal convictions.

On the other end of the spectrum, Iowa, Florida and Kentucky permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions.  Tennessee is one of eight other states that permanently disenfranchise people for some criminal convictions.  In each of these eleven states, the government can approve individual rights restoration, but it is a lengthy and difficult process, certainly one that would necessitate the help of a lawyer.

“Voting rights restoration is just a small part of a much larger movement for equal justice,” said Chris Martin, Shelby County Assistant Public Defender.  “With the help of law students and legal aid attorneys in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville, we hope to export this model to other parts of Tennessee.  It wouldn’t be possible without the support and self-sacrifice of so many volunteers.”

According to the Brennan Center, past criminal convictions have stripped 6 million U.S. citizens of the right to vote.  The site estimates that the great majority of this segment are productive members of society — raising families and working — but they can’t vote.  And when broken down by race and gender, 13% of African-American men have lost their right to vote.  That’s seven times the national average.

This past week, a group of nine students from the University of Illinois College of Law spent part of their Winter Break assisting our office with our new Citizenship Rights Clinic.  They helped draft rights restoration petitions, create pamphlets for the program and conduct legal research. Their volunteer work has provided great value for our community. For the students, it has opened their eyes to the roadblocks to productivity and the problems people face long after their time has been served.

Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Chris Martin successfully petitions for the voting rights of Martin Storz (seated left) and Lewis Anderson (seated right).
Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Chris Martin successfully petitions for the voting rights of Martin Storz (seated front row, left) and Lewis Anderson (seated front row, right).

“Our focus this week has been on the restoration of voting rights. So we’re learning that there are a lot of collateral consequences for people that do have convictions,” says Diedre Peters, University of Illinois law student. “It’s been incredible for us to be a part of helping people with that.”

For students from the University of Illinois, it was a good day to sit inside the courtroom and see all that effort pay off — to witness a person regain his rights at the gavel of a judge.

For Martin Storz, that day is even more memorable.  Storz spent the better part of two decades battling drug addiction.  He’s been clean for two years now. And he recalls that before the drugs, that time period in his life when he once had a good job, he used to vote in every election.  Now his prison time has been served, his rights restored, and he’s ready to become a full member of the community, once again.

“I think it’s important to vote,” says Storz. “To have a say in how the system needs to go. It makes me feel like a whole person again.”

If you  or someone you know has served their time and wants his or her rights restored, please visit the Saturday Legal Clinic hosted by Memphis Area Legal Services.  The free legal clinic is held at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on 3030 Poplar Ave. every 2nd Saturday of the month from 10am-noon.  The next Saturday Legal Clinic will be held Saturday, February 8th.  The clinic is free of charge and members of the Shelby County Public Defender’s office will be there to conduct screenings on restoration of citizenship and expungement. 

Relevant Links: 

Read more about the experience University of Illinois law students had in Memphis. 

Learn about the NYU’s Brennan Center campaign to increase voting rights restoration across the U.S.