Thursday, April 16, 2009
Justices Let Stand Ruling Limiting Felons’ Voting Rights
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday left standing a First District Court of Appeal ruling upholding California’s absolute ban on voting by incarcerated felons and parolees.
The justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco, unanimously declined to review the Jan. 22 ruling of the First District’s Div. Two. The plaintiffs, representing a purported class of prison inmates and parolees, contended that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution only permits disenfranchisement of persons convicted of felonies at common law.
The action, brought as a writ petition against Secretary of State Debra Bowen, was based on Sec. 2 of the amendment, which permits a state to take away a citizen’s right to vote “for participation in rebellion or other crime.” In denying the writ, the Court of Appeal said there was “no historical evidence supporting the claim” and that the U.S. Supreme Court “has never read the word ‘crime’ as Petitioners contend.”
California’s current laws on felon voting disenfranchise all incarcerated felons and parolees, while permitting voting by persons who are, or were, on felony probation and felons who have served prison terms and completed parole. An initiative submitted to the secretary of state this week by Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, would ban felons from voting while on probation.
Justice James Richman, writing for the First District, noted that the California Constitution once barred all convicted felons from voting, and that the provision was upheld in a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Sec. 2, the high court said in that case, was designed to promote African-American suffrage and “create an enduring framework for apportionment of representatives that also inured to the advantage of the victors of the Civil War” by reducing the representation of any state that limited the right of adult citizens—other than felons—to vote.
The decision, Richman noted, upheld the disenfranchisement of a defendant convicted of drug possession, which was not a felony at common law. Earlier Supreme Court rulings, the justice added, also upheld bans on voting by persons convicted of non-common law felonies, including polygamy and bigamy.
More importantly, Richman wrote, the Supreme Court has consistently interpreted the word “crime,” as used elsewhere in the Constitution, as including offenses that are not common-law felonies.
Challenges similar to that brought in this case, the justice pointed out, have been rejected by two federal judges in Arizona in the past year and by a federal judge in Virginia in 1996.
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