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Felon Disenfranchisement Laws Challenged in Washington

In the January and December, 1996, issues of PLN we reported Baker v. Cuomo, 58 F.3d 814 (2nd Cir. 1995) and Baker v. Pataki, 85 F.3d 919 (2nd Cir. 1996)(en banc) in which New York state prisoners were using the Voting Rights Act (VRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1971 and 1973, to challenge New York state laws which prohibit felons and prisoners from voting. Their legal strategy largely derived from that set forth in "Giving Cons and Ex Cons the Right to Vote" by Andrew Shapiro which we published in the May, 1994, issue of PLN. The strategy relies on the fact that minorities are disproportionately among those convicted of crimes, and disenfranchised, and therefore the voting power of minorities is diluted. A VRA strategy is appropriate in light of the fact that in Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24, 94 S.Ct. 2655 (1974) the U.S. supreme court held that the fourteenth amendment allows citizens convicted of crimes to be disenfranchised.

In 1996 Washington prisoners Muhamad Shabazz Farrakhan (AKA Ernest Walker) and several other black, Hispanic and Native American prisoners filed suit in the federal district court in Spokane, Washington challenging the legality of Article 6, Section 3 of the Washington state constitution and RCW 29.01.080; 29.07.080 and 29.07.260 which prevent anyone convicted of an "infamous crime" (i.e. a felony) from voting unless their civil rights have been restored. The court appointed Dennis Cronin, an attorney with the Law Office of Carl Maxey, the only African American law firm in Eastern Washington, to represent the plaintiffs.

On May 27, 1997, Mr. Cronin filed the plaintiffs' second amended complaint for money damages, declaratory and injunctive relief. To support their factual claims of dilution of minority voting power the plaintiffs rely on studies which show minority defendants are more likely than whites to be given aggravated sentences for serious crimes by state courts and that the population of minority prisoners is disproportionately large given their number in the state's general population. The lawsuit notes that in Spokane alone black defendants are five times more likely to face the death penalty in an aggravated murder case than are white defendants; that there are no minority judges and few minority jurors in Spokane.

The complaint then alleges that these facts come together to violate the VRA by denying the vote to prisoners and felons on the basis of their race. The lawsuit also asserts constitutional claims. As relief the plaintiffs seek a declaration that Article 6, Section 3 of the Washington constitution and the state statutes which prevent felons from voting, violate the VRA and U.S. constitution. They seek an injunction enjoining state officials from preventing convicted felons and prisoners from voting or registering to vote on the basis of their felony convictions.

The case is assigned to judge Robert Whalen. PLN will report the progress of the case as it develops. See: Farrakhan v. State of Washington, Case No. CS-96-076-RHW. [Carl Maxey, on the leading civil rights lawyers in Washington was also a plaintiff in this case but he died in July, 1997.]

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Related legal case

Farrakhan v. State of Washington