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Sixth Circuit Upholds Tennessee’s Financial Obligation Re-Enfranchisement Law

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a Tennessee statute that bars the restoration of voting rights to ex-felons who have outstanding restitution or child support obligations.

Tennessee law disenfranchises convicted felons but allows reinstatement of their voting rights upon completion of their sentence and satisfaction of certain conditions. In 2006, the Tennessee legislature passed an amendment to the disenfranchisement law that conditioned restoration of voting rights on the payment of outstanding victim restitution and child support obligations. Tenn.Code.Ann. § 40-29-202(b) and (c).

Terrence Johnson, Jim Harris and Joshua Roberts, convicted Tennessee felons, would have been eligible for reinstatement of their voting rights but for their outstanding restitution and/or child support obligations. Represented by the ACLU of Tennessee, they filed suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the 2006 financial obligation amendment. PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann was also a named plaintiff in the case, raising a due process claim related to a restitution order, but agreed to settle and regained his voting rights in 2008.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), and the remaining plaintiffs appealed.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed.
Beginning with the equal protection claims, the appellate court held that the lower court had applied the correct standard of review. Since “Tennessee’s re-enfranchisement law neither implicates a fundamental right nor targets a suspect class,” the Court of Appeals concluded that “the district court properly applied rational basis review, not strict scrutiny.” The Sixth Circuit then determined that the challenged provisions withstood rational basis scrutiny because they had a direct and rational relationship to the advancement of several legitimate state interests.

The appellate court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the restitution and child support obligation provisions amounted to a “poll tax” in violation of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment.

“As convicted felons constitutionally stripped of their voting rights by virtue of their convictions,” the Sixth Circuit found that the “Plaintiffs possess no right to vote and, consequently, have no cognizable Twenty-Fourth Amendment claim.” Even if they did, the Court of Appeals held, “the provisions requiring payment of restitution and child support do not represent taxes on voting imposed by the state, and therefore do not violate the Amendment’s terms.”

The appellate court then affirmed the denial of the plaintiffs’ Privileges and Immunities Clause argument, because “no authority recognizes the right to vote in federal elections as a privilege or immunity of United States citizenship.” Even if voting were such a privilege, the Sixth Circuit found that the “Plaintiffs fail to state a claim because ... the Constitution authorizes the complete abrogation of felons’ voting rights.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the plaintiffs’ ex post facto claim because the intent, purpose and effect of the restitution and child support payment provisions were non-punitive. Moreover, “felon disenfranchisement laws serve a regulatory, non-penal purpose,” the appellate court wrote, citing Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958). “Accordingly, as a matter of federal law, disenfranchisement statutes do not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore issued a dissenting opinion in which she would have found in favor of the plaintiffs on their Equal Protection, Ex Post Facto and Twenty-Fourth Amendment claims.

The plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, which was denied on May 23, 2011. See: Johnson v. Bredesen, 624 F.3d 742 (6th Cir. 2010), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Bredesen