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Massachusetts Incarcerated Felon Disenfranchisement Constitutional; Voting Rights Act Claim Survives

A federal court in Massachusetts held that retroactive state constitutional and statutory amendments disenfranchising incarcerated felons do not violate the federal ex post facto or equal protection clauses. It found, however, that Plaintiffs stated a viable Voting Rights Act (VRA) claim, and that summary judgment on that claim would be premature.

For many years, Massachusetts was one of a very small number of states that allowed prisoners to vote. “Between 1988 and 1997, several state legislators attempted unsuccessfully to…enact some form of felon disenfranchisement.”

“In 1997, Representative Francis Mariani introduced a felon disenfranchisement bill which failed in committee. However, it did not die.” Soon after “the committee vote, The Boston Globe reported that Massachusetts prisoners were planning to form their own political action committee.”

State politicians were not amused. “When you sentence someone to prison, they lose their liberty for a reason,” declared Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci. “Prison is supposed to mean punishment, not some opportunity to form a political group.” Legislators agreed. “People who’ve committed murder and other heinous crimes…don’t deserve to vote,” said Representative Paul Frost. “This is an issue about justice.” Senator Guy Glodis argued that “philosophically, no inmates deserve the right to vote.”

Cellucci “proposed a constitutional amendment that would disenfranchise all incarcerated individuals, whether felons or misdemeanants.” The Legislature did not enact the Governor’s amendment, but struck the misdemeanant provision and incorporated the remaining text into Representative Mariani’s bill. Both the 1988 and 2000 joint sessions of the legislature approved the amendment, and voters ratified it, effective December 6, 2000. Related statutory amendments were enacted in 2001.

Prisoners Paul Simmons, Pedro Valentin, and Dennis Beldotti challenged the disenfranchisement amendments in federal court. They alleged that the amendments violate the ex post facto and equal protection clauses of the United States Constitution, and 42 USC § 1973(b) of the VRA. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the constitutional claims and for judgment on the pleadings on the VRA claim.

The court rejected Plaintiffs’ ex post facto challenged, finding that the amendments were intended to be civil, non-punitive measures, and Plaintiffs failed to produce clear proof that the effect of the amendments is primarily punitive. Hence, Plaintiffs failed to prove that “what was manifestly intended to be a civil, regulatory measure” was transformed “into a criminal penalty.”

In rejecting Plaintiffs’ equal protection challenge, the court observed that “it is well-established that a state may disenfranchise felons without violating the Equal Protection Clause…Only a rational basis is needed to do so.” The court found that “a state may rationally decide that those who have violated the law are not fit to participate in electing those who make and enforce the law.” Citing Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 US 24 (1974), the court acknowledged that disenfranchising felons who have been released from prison does not violate equal protection. Therefore, “it is even more reasonable to disenfranchise felons who are incarcerated.”

Finally, the court denied Defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding that Plaintiffs alleged a viable VRA claim. Because there had been no discovery, the court concluded summary judgment would be premature. Plaintiffs are entitled to discovery on their VRA claims. See: Simmons v. Galvin, U.S.D.C. (D. Mass. 2007), 652 F. Supp. 2d 83.

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Related legal case

Simmons v. Galvin