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Appeals court backs voting rights for felons

Current state law doesn’t protect minorities, judges rule

OLYMPIA – Incarcerated felons should be allowed to vote in Washington to ensure that racial minorities are protected under the Voting Rights Act, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the 2000 ruling of a district judge in Spokane. That judge had ruled that state law did not violate the act and dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former prison inmate from Bellevue.

The two appellate judges ruled that disparities in the state’s justice system “cannot be explained in race-neutral ways.”

Of the more than 18,000 felons in state custody who could get back their right to vote under this ruling, 37.1 percent are minorities.

The issues the ruling raises about racial bias in the justice system are not unique to Washington state, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., group promoting sentencing reform.

“They are issues that permeate the justice system and are relevant in every state,” he said, adding that an estimated 5.3 million people nationwide are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions.

Tuesday’s ruling affects only Washington but could be the basis for litigation in any area covered by the 9th Circuit – Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Marianas – said Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna.

Guthrie said McKenna is weighing the state’s next step. It could either ask a larger group of judges from the 9th Circuit to reconsider the ruling or go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court, she said. If it appeals, the state likely would seek a stay on inmates’ ability to vote until the case is resolved.

The lawsuit was filed in 1996 by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan, of Bellevue, who was serving a three-year sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for a series of felony-theft convictions at the time.

Ultimately, five other inmates, all members of racial minority groups, joined as plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed in federal court by a Spokane private attorney and lawyers from Gonzaga University’s legal clinic.

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. That violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965, the lawsuit said.

Farrakhan’s lead attorney, Gonzaga University School of Law professor Larry Weiser, equated some disenfranchisement laws to poll taxes and literacy tests of the past. He said Washington state’s criminal justice system “is biased against African-Americans, and the impact has been a violation of their voting rights.”

The state argued the lawsuit should be dismissed because the law was not intended to discriminate against minorities.

Washington’s head elections official, Secretary of State Sam Reed, supports minority rights but believes it is a “rational and reasonable sanction for society to demand that felons lose their voting rights while in prison or under community supervision,” spokesman David Ammons said.

Last year, lawmakers passed a law that allows convicted felons to re-register to vote once they’re no longer on parole or probation. Previously, felons who were no longer in Washington state custody but owed court-ordered fines and restitution were barred from voting. Under the law that took effect in July, voting rights could be revoked if a felon willingly fails to make regular payments on those obligations.

Weiser said that during early stages of the litigation, GU clinical law students played a large part in research and case work.

“In a clinical law setting, law students are as capable or even better than the average practicing lawyer,” Weiser said. They don’t have a huge caseload and can devote a lot of time and attention to the issue, he said.

Staff writer Tom Sowa contributed to this report.