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Washington’s Criminal Justice System Racially Biased; VRA Claim Fails

Despite holding that Washington State’s criminal justice system is racially biased, a Washington federal court has held that Washington’s felon disenfranchisement law does not result in discrimination in its electoral process on account of race.

This case was originally filed in February 1996, alleging Washington’s felon disenfranchisement and restoration of civil rights schemes result in the denial of the right to vote to racial minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The district court applied a novel “by itself” causation standard in granting the defendants summary judgment. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit remanded for application of the totality of the circumstances test. See: Farrakhan v. Washington, 338 F. 3rd 1009 (9th Cir. 2003), rehearing denied 359 F. 3rd 1116.

On remand, the district court said 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.” That discrimination “clearly hinders the ability of racial minorities to participate effectively in the political processes, as disenfranchisement is automatic,” the Court held.

The 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 Senate Report on the VRA.

While the Court found the plaintiffs had proven two of the nine factors, it found their claim lacking. A “remarkable lack of any history of official discrimination in Washington factors heavily in the Court’s totality of the circumstances analysis.” The Court held the plaintiffs failed to present any evidence on the extent to which political office in Washington or the level of responsiveness elected officials have to 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 abridgement 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 Court was obligated to find discrimination on a broader scale, which it did not find. As such, the Court granted defendants summary judgment. To date, no court has found for felons on a VRA claim. See: Farrakhan v. Gregoire, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wash. 2006) Case No: CU-96-076-HW; 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45987.

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Related legal case

Farrakhan v. Gregoire