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Washington’s Criminal Justice System Racially Biased; Voting Rights Act Claim Fails Anyway

Washington's Criminal Justice System Racially Biased; Voting Rights Act Claim Fails Anyway

Despite finding that Washington state's criminal justice system is racially biased, a federal district court has held that the state's felon disenfranchisement law does not result in discrimination in the electoral process in terms of race.

This case was originally filed in February 1996, alleging Washington?s felon disenfranchisement and restoration of civil rights schemes resulted in the denial of voting rights for racial minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1973. The district court initially applied a novel "by itself" causation standard in granting summary judgment to the defendants.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit remanded for application of the totality of the circumstances test. See: Farrakhan v. Washington, 338 F.3d 1009 (9th Cir. 2003), rehearing denied, 359 F.3d 1116 (2004). [PLN, Nov. 2004, p.34].

Upon remand, the district court held that the plaintiffs "must prove, by preponderance of the evidence, that the totality of the circumstances supports the conclusion that 'members' of protected minorities 'have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice' on account of race or color."

The Court reviewed and detailed the findings of two reports, finding them "to be compelling evidence of racial discrimination and bias in Washington's criminal justice system." Further, such discrimination "clearly hinders the ability of racial minorities to participate effectively in the political processes, or disenfranchisement is automatic," the Court noted.

The district court then outlined "a non-exclusive list of 'typical factors' that may be relevant when analyzing the totality of the circumstances to determine whether § 2 of the VRA has been violated." The Court considered nine factors from a U.S. Senate report on the VRA. While the Court found the plaintiffs had proven two of the nine factors, it still determined their claim was lacking, ruling that the "remarkable absence of any history of official discrimination in Washington factors heavily in the Court's totality of the circumstances analysis."

The Court held that the plaintiffs had failed to present any evidence regarding the extent to which minorities were "elected to political office in Washington or the level of responsiveness elected officials have to the particularized needs of members of minority groups."

The Court said it had "no doubt that members of racial minorities have experienced discrimination in Washington's criminal justice system. If the abridgment of one citizen's right to vote 'on account of race or color' established a violation of § 2 of the VRA, this Court would find for plaintiff." However, the district court was required to find discrimination on a more pervasive scale, which it did not. As such, the Court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. To date, no court has found for felons on a VRA claim. See: Farrakhan v. Gregoire, 2006 WL 1889273.

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Related legal case

Farrakhan v. Gregoire