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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Small Talk:
Washington Court of Appeals Rule Felons Have a Right to Vote

As reported by, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a state law that banned felons from voting.  In a 2-to-1 decision judges ruled that the Washington state law violated the Voting Rights Act.  The ruling sets a huge precedent for prisoner's rights.

Under the Washington law at issue, citizens convicted of a felony lose the right to vote until they are released from custody and off of Department of Corrections supervision. The 2-1 ruling by a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel puts those restrictions in doubt, the majority reviewing the voting rights lawsuit found that the state restrictions unfairly penalize minorities.

Attorneys for six Washington state prisoners, Circuit Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote, "have demonstrated that police practices, searches, arrests, detention practices, and plea bargaining practices lead to a greater burden on minorities that cannot be explained in race-neutral ways."

Joined by Judge Stephen Reinhardt in the majority opinion, Tashima found no "race neutral" explanation for the higher incarceration rates and reversed a U.S. District Court decision in favor of the felons.

"Although (the state) criticized the experts' studies and the conclusions, the (plaintiffs') reports, when objectively viewed, support a finding of racial discrimination in Washington's criminal justice system," Tashima said in the ruling.

Tuesday's decision could land attorneys for state and the group of Washington prisoners before the U.S. Supreme Court in coming months. A decision is expected in coming weeks, but conflicting judicial opinions on felon voting lead some to believe the issue is ripe for the high court.

Writing in dissent, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Margaret McKeown said that the merits of the case should be heard at trial. Instead, her colleagues on the bench granted a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, effectively settling the case pending an appeal.

Arguing the case, attorneys for the prisoners turned to a series of studies conducted in Seattle and elsewhere in the state showing that racial minorities were charged with crimes at rates far higher than could be explained by differences in levels of criminal activity, said Lawrence A. Weiser, a Gonzaga University law professor involved with the case since the mid-1990s.

"The issue is discrimination in the criminal justice system," said Weiser, director of Gonzaga's clinical law program. "The fact is that the disenfranchisement law has always been used to disenfranchise minority communities."

Recent Department of Corrections figures show that about 28 percent of the state's prison population is African-American, according to statistics cited in the suit. In contrast, African-Americans account for about 3 percent of Washington's population.

A review of arrest records, the plaintiffs argued, showed that increased criminal behavior could not account for the disproportionately high incarceration rates among black Washingtonians.

"The disparities aren't reflective of the actual participation in crime," said Ryan Haygood, co-director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which participated in the suit. "They're reflective of the discrimination in the criminal justice system."
(Read full article)

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