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Ninth Circuit upholds Arizona felon voter disenfranchisement law

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] on Thursday upheld [opinion, PDF] Arizona laws barring former felons from voting until the completion of probation and the payment of outstanding fines. The Arizona Constitution [text] prohibits those convicted of felonies from voting, and state statute sets out the requirements of re-enfranchisement. The plaintiffs in the case brought the action under 42 USC s. 1983 [text], alleging that the Equal Protection Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder] of the US Constitution [text] only allows disenfranchisement for common law felonies. Plaintiffs also argued that the constitutional prohibition against poll taxes [text] was violated. The opinion, written by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, sitting with authorization under 28 USC s. 294(a) [text], concluded:

The Fourteenth Amendment permits States to disenfranchise felons, regardless of whether their offenses were recognized as felonies at common law. Requiring felons to satisfy the terms of their sentences before restoring their voting rights is rationally related to a legitimate state interest, and does not violate any of the various constitutional provisions plaintiffs rely upon.
O'Connor went on to dismiss the alleged poll tax violations because plaintiffs did not lose their right to vote "because they failed to pay a poll tax; it was abridged because they were convicted of felonies." Without voting rights after their felony convictions, the court held, the plaintiffs did not have a claim.

The Ninth Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] in January that a Washington law prohibiting felons from voting violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act [text]. The Washington law, Article VI, Section 3 of the state constitution [text], stated that, "All persons convicted of infamous crime unless restored to their civil rights and all persons while they are judicially declared mentally incompetent are excluded from the elective franchise." Washington defines [text] an infamous crime as one, "punishable by death in the state penitentiary or imprisonment in a state correctional facility." In issuing its opinion, the Ninth Circuit noted that despite the state's efforts to amend the law to reduce the discriminatory effect, "it does not protect minorities from being denied the right to vote upon conviction by a criminal justice system that Plaintiffs have demonstrated is materially tainted by discrimination and bias." Felon voting rights are varied throughout the US [ProCon backgrounder], with 12 states completely restricting the right to vote depending on the crime committed, while Maine and Vermont allow all felons to vote, including those still serving their prison sentences.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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