Case more about racism than felon voting rightsSeptember 21, 2010 @ 5:20 am (Updated: 6:25 am - 9/21/10 )
In Washington, like in most states, convicted felons cannot vote until they've done their time. But a case challenging that law is coming to a head in federal court Monday.
On its face, Farakkhan v. Gregoire is about whether felons have the right to vote. But it's really about institutionalized racism: namely whether Washington's criminal justice system treats minorities unfairly.
"You have vast disproportionate rates of incarceration and sentencing for African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans," said Dale Ho, one of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the 14-year-old case. They claim that due to racism built into the court system, the state's law banning felons from voting violates the 1965 Voter Rights Act. "Black defendants convicted of crimes lose their right to vote 50 percent longer than white defendants," Ho said.
In January, a 3-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Ho and the plaintiffs. The state was set to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, until the 9th Circuit decided to hear the case again, this time before an 11-judge en banc panel. "To our surprise, the judges themselves decided to reconsider this case," said Secretary of State Sam Reed.
Tuesday, Attorney General Rob McKenna will argue before that 11-judge panel. Reed said the fact that the court decided to hear the case a second time is a good sign. "There is no evidence of there being discrimination per se," he said. "If there are problems in the justice system, they need to address those, not to say that everyone who is in prison today has a right to vote."
Three other appellate courts (in cases out of New York, Massachusetts, and Florida), have reached the opposite conclusion, deciding the Voting Rights Act does not deal with felons' right to vote.
"In a couple of these other cases there have been requests for the Supreme Court to hear them," Reed said. "But we understand they're waiting and seeing on this one because they may want to take the Washington case."
According to Reed, no matter what the 9th Circuit decides, Farrakhan will likely reach the highest court in the land, and that could mean changes in voting rights for felons across the country.
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