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9th Circuit Upholds|Wash. Inmate Voting Ban

(CN) - The 9th Circuit reversed itself Thursday, ruling that Washington state can bar convicted felons from voting, despite inmates' claim that the ban disproportionately affects minorities.

In January, a three-judge panel agreed and reversed, for the second time, a federal judge's ruling for the state. The full 9th Circuit bench then agreed to rehear the case.

In Thursday's decision, an 11-judge panel unanimously reversed its earlier ruling, noting that three sister circuits, including two sitting en banc, have disagreed with it.

"In light of those opinions, we conclude that the rule announced in [the panel ruling] sweeps too broadly," the court wrote.

"Felon disenfranchisement laws have a long history in the United States. Those laws predate the Jim Crow era and, with a few notable exceptions, have not been adopted based on racial considerations."

The court pointed out that "felon disenfranchisement takes effect only after an individual has been found guilty of a crime. This determination is made by the criminal justice system, which has its own unique safeguards and remedies against arbitrary, invidious or mistaken conviction."

The San Francisco-based appeals court sided with the state, saying the convicted felons failed to show "intentional discrimination in the operation of Washington's criminal justice system."

In a concurring opinion, Judge Sidney Thomas agreed that felon disenfranchisement laws are "presumptively constitutional," but said inmates need not show discriminatory intent to establish a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Judges Mary Schroeder, Margaret McKeown and Kim Wardlaw joined his opinion.

Judge Susan Graber filed a second concurring opinion, saying she would have simply upheld the lower court's conclusion that, "although one of the many relevant factors supports a finding of discrimination, none of the other factors does."

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