Thursday, April 29, 2010
Ninth Circuit to Review Ruling That Washington Inmates Can Vote
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said yesterday it will reconsider a suit challenging a Washington law banning imprisoned felons from voting.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said in a brief order that a majority of the court’s nonrecused judges had voted to rehear the case of Farrakhan v. Gregoire, 06-35669, en banc.
A split three-judge panel ruled in January that incarcerated felons in Washington should be allowed to vote to ensure that racial minorities are protected under the Voting Rights Act.
That decision overturned the 2000 ruling of a district judge in Spokane, who held that the state’s felon disenfranchisement law did not violate the act, and dismissed a former prison inmate’s lawsuit.
Last year, state legislators passed a law allowing convicted felons to vote again once they finish any parole or probation. Previously, felons who were no longer in state custody were barred from voting if they still owed fines and restitution.
Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote for the majority in January that disparities in the state’s justice system “cannot be explained by non-racial reasons.” Joined by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, he said the state’s automatic disenfranchisement of felons resulted in the denial of the right to vote on account of race in violation of the 1965 act.
Judge M. Margaret McKeown dissented that the case should be remanded to the district court for findings on whether there was racial discrimination in the Washington criminal justice system and for the court to weigh other factors to determine if there was a violation.
The lawsuit was filed by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan of Bellevue, Washington. He was serving a three-year sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for a series of felony-theft convictions when he sued the state in 1996.
Ultimately, five other inmates, all members of racial minority groups, joined as plaintiffs.
The lawsuit contended that because nonwhites make up a large percentage of the prison population, a state law prohibiting inmates and parolees from voting is illegal because it dilutes the electoral clout of minorities, violating the 1965 act.
The state contended that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the law was not intended to discriminate against minorities.
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