OLYMPIA -- The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled a Sept. 21 hearing on a challenge to Washington's longstanding ban on voting by felons in prison or under community supervision.
The court, which covers the Western states, in late April announced that an 11-judge panel will re-hear the Farrakhan case that three of its own judges had decided in favor of the inmates. That much-criticized 2-1 ruling held that Washington violates the federal Voting Rights Act and the constitutional rights of felons by denying them the right to vote while behind bars. The ruling is on hold pending appeals.
Washington has had its policy since territorial days, and nearly all of the states likewise suspend the voting rights of convicted felons when they are incarcerated or on community supervision.
Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state's chief elections officer, and Attorney General Rob McKenna are teaming up to try to overturn the original 9th Circuit decision. They had planned to appeal to the Supreme Court, but now are glad to get the appeals court to take up the case on its own.
"We remain quite optimistic that the courts will ultimately upheld our longtime practice of suspending felons' voting rights," Reed said. "We believe that it is reasonable and rational for society to take away certain rights, including voting, whenever someone has been convicted of a serious crime and sent to prison. Forty-eight states do this."
The attorney general will personally argue the case, backed by senior solicitors Bill Collins and Jeff Even.
"This is a relatively rare occurrence for a circuit court to decide to review its own decision, and it put on hold review proceedings in the U.S. Supreme Court," said state Elections Director Nick Handy. "If the en banc panel affirms the three-judge panel, the case will be ripe for U.S. Supreme Court review. If the appeals court reverses its three-judge panel, the case will not likely be accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court and Washington will once again be able to disenfranchise a voter who commits a felony and falls under the supervision of the Department of Corrections.
"The 9th circuit has issued orders maintaining the status quo (of no voting rights for felons) until the court completes review of the case.
"This is a case of national significance."
The case has been in play for 14 years, making it one of the state's longest running lawsuits. It was originally brought in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan and five other minority inmates. They said minorities are disproportionately prosecuted and sent to prison, and that their automatic disenfranchisement violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
The Appeals panel concurred, saying the state's criminal justice system is "infected" with racial discrimination. Three other circuits, the First, Second and 11th, have reached the opposite conclusion about felon voting.