Supreme Court rejects Massachusetts felons' voting rights challenge

Three Massachusetts felons alleged that the commonwealth violated the Voting Rights Act when it passed a referendum stripping incarcerated felons of the right to vote.

Massachusetts prison inmates have lost a bid to regain their voting rights after claiming that a state referendum diluted black and Hispanic political clout because of the higher proportion of minorities in the commonwealth's prison system.

The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the case of three inmates who sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after a 2000 referendum stripped incarcerated felons of the right to vote.

The inmates filed suit in federal court claiming the action violated the federal Voting Rights Act because it had a disparate impact on the political power of minority voters across Massachusetts.

The lawsuit said the Massachusetts measure exerted a “disproportionately adverse effect on the voting rights of African Americans and Hispanic Americans compared to its effect on the voting rights of other citizens.”

This is so, the lawsuit said, because African Americans and Hispanic Americans are over-represented in Massachusetts prisons. The overrepresentation is caused, in part, by “considerable racial and ethnic bias, both direct and subtle, in the Massachusetts court system,” the lawsuit said.

The Voting Rights Act bars states from passing measures that undercut the opportunity of black and Hispanic voters to elect representatives of their choice. The law is designed to ensure that the political process is equally open to certain protected groups regardless of race or color.

The dispute began in the late 1990s when a group of Massachusetts prison inmates decided to take civic involvement to a new level. Upset over the length of their terms of incarceration, they resolved to organize a political action committee and use their collective clout to win their freedom by changing the laws that put them behind bars.

Massachusetts politicians and lawmakers were not amused. Nor were most citizens of the state. They passed a referendum (60 percent to 34 percent) that changed the Massachusetts Constitution, stripping convicted felons in prison of the right to vote.

Thus, Massachusetts joined 47 other states that bar prison inmates from voting. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, permit inmates to vote while serving felony prison terms.

But the dispute did not end there. The three inmates, an African-American, a Hispanic-American, and a Caucasian-American, filed a lawsuit claiming the action violated the Voting Rights Act. They also claimed the measure amounted to illegal extra punishment in violation of the US Constitution’s prohibition on ex post facto laws.

A federal judge threw out the ex post facto claim, but ruled that the voting rights challenge should proceed to trial. A three-judge panel of the First US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston disagreed and threw out the entire lawsuit.

In their appeal to the US Supreme Court, the inmates argued that federal appeals courts are split on the issue of whether the Voting Rights Act supports lawsuits challenging felon disenfranchisement measures.

The Second Circuit in New York and the 11th Circuit in Atlanta have ruled that the Voting Rights Act does not apply to disenfranchisement of convicted felons. But an appeals court panel in the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit ruled that it does.

The inmates urged the high court to clarify which appeals courts had it right. Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit withdrew the panel decision and announced that the full appeals court would re-hear that case.

Lawyers for Massachusetts highlighted the development in a letter to the Supreme Court, saying the rehearing could eliminate the split among the appeals courts on the issue.

But that may not eliminate a split on the issue among the justices. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissent in the Second Circuit case, prior to her elevation to the Supreme Court.

In urging the high court to reject the inmates’ appeal, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Salinger said: “There is no claim that Massachusetts has any history of using laws, rules, practices, tests, or devices to restrict, impede, or discourage voting by racial minorities.”

He said there is no allegation that the commonwealth acted with racially discriminatory intent or attempted to link disenfranchisement only to those crimes that have a higher conviction rate for minorities than whites.

To support their claim, the inmates cited a 1994 report by a special commission that studied racial and ethnic bias in the Massachusetts courts. The report found that racial minorities were underrepresented in jury pools in communities with large minority and ethnic populations. It also found that minorities were underrepresented among lawyers and judges in Massachusetts.

The commission noted, however, that it did not have enough data to test the hypothesis that racial bias influenced sentencing decisions.

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