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9th Circuit will re-open WA felon voting case

by David Ammons | August 18th, 2010

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to a Sept. 21 re-hearing of  a challenge of Washington’s longstanding ban on voting by felons.  The nationally prominent case could be decided by the appeals judges or end up in the U.S. Supreme Court to set a nationwide policy.

An 11-judge panel will re-hear the case that three of its own judges had decided in favor of the inmates earlier this year. That much-criticized ruling held that Washington violates the federal Voting Rights Act and the constitutional rights of felons by denying them the right to vote while behind bars. The ruling is on hold pending appeals.

Washington has had its policy since territorial days, and nearly all of the states likewise suspend the voting rights of convicted felons when they are incarcerated or on community supervision.

Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state’s chief elections officer, and Attorney General Rob McKenna are teaming up to try to overturn the original 9th Circuit decision. McKenna will personally argue the case in San Francisco.

The case has been in play for 14 years, making it one of the state’s longest running lawsuits. It was originally brought in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan and five other minority inmates. They said minorities are disproportionately prosecuted and sent to prison, and that their automatic disenfranchisement violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

The state says the voting ban is appropriate for felons and does not violate the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution. State lawyers say that if there is prejudice in the criminal justice system, that’s a broader social issue that can be taken up separately.

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