JANUARY 06, 2010
In a surprise ruling even for a notoriously liberal federal court that frequently gets overturned, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has restored the voting rights of incarcerated felons in order to end racial discrimination of that population.
The decision involves a case in Washington State, but will likely have widespread impact in the region covered by the 9th Circuit, which includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and the Northern Marianas.
Claiming that Washington’s criminal justice system is "infected" with racial discrimination, the three-judge panel said the state’s law banning imprisoned felons from participating in elections violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters, since the majority of incarcerated felons are in fact members of an ethnic minority.
The 2-1 ruling was based largely on the argument that data presented in court proved that minorities in Washington are arrested and convicted at such disproportionate rates that banning incarcerated felons from voting is inherently discriminatory. The data "speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington’s criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by factors independent of race,” according to the 51-page opinion.
The lawsuit was filed by a black inmate (Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan) serving a three-year sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for several felony theft convictions. He claimed that because nonwhites make up a large percentage of the prison population, the state’s law prohibiting inmates and parolees from voting is illegal because it weakens minorities’ electoral clout and thus violates the Voting Rights Act.
In 2000 a district judge in Spokane dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Washington’s felon voting ban, like that of 48 other states, does not violate the landmark legislation enacted mainly to end the disenfranchisement of blacks. Only two states—Vermont and Maine—allow prison inmates convicted of felonies to vote in elections.
Three seperate federal appellate courts have previously determined that prohibiting felons from casting ballots does not violate the Voting Rights Act, as 9th Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown wrote in her dissent. They include the 1st Circuit in a Massachusetts case, the 2nd Circuit in a New York case and the 11th Circuit in a Florida case.
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