VA Felon Barred From Voting Has Bias Case

     (CN) – A tax-evading former politician can advance claims that Virginia discriminates against black citizens by denying felons the right to vote, a federal judge ruled.
     Sa’ad El-Amin formerly served as a member of the City Council in Richmond, Va., before he pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2003. He served three years in prison and was released in 2006.
     Upon his conviction, El-Amin’s name was stricken from the state’s voter rolls, pursuant to the Virginia Constitution, making him ineligible to vote unless he seeks reinstatement, which is available for nonviolent felons.
     El-Amin did not seek reinstatement after he completed his supervised release in 2009 because he believes that disenfranchisement violates the U.S. Constitution.
     In court, he claimed that Virginia adopted the felon disenfranchisement statute to suppress black voters.
     U.S. District Judge John Gibney Jr. refused Friday to dismiss the equal-protection claim after evaluating “whether Virginia enacted its felony disenfranchisement provision with the intent to discriminate against black citizens, as El-Amin alleges, or whether it was adopted for a legitimate reason as the defendants argue.”
     El-Amin supported his claim by noting that the 1870 Virginia Constitutional Convention disenfranchised felons but gave former Confederates the vote to disproportionately deprive black citizens of their rights.
     In addition, at least one delegate during the 1901-02 Virginia Constitutional Convention allegedly made comments approving of the fact that felon disenfranchisement would “drastically reduce the black vote while not having the same effect on white citizens,” according to the judgment.
     “El-Amin has alleged both discriminatory intent and disparate impact, and he has pleaded sufficient facts to state a claim for violation of the equal protection clause,” Gibney wrote. “This conclusion has nothing to do with the claim’s ultimate likelihood of success, on which the court expresses no view. It instead has to do with the basic reality that the court may not weigh evidence at the motion to dismiss stage, which is, in effect, what the defendants seek.”
     El-Amin’s challenge to Virginia’s reinstatement process did not fare as well because he had admitted that he never applied for reinstatement.
     “While El-Amin is correct that Virginia has deprived him of his voting rights, this injury permits him only to challenge the deprivation itself, which he does in Count I,” Gibney wrote (emphasis in original). “Since he has not applied for restoration of his voting rights, he has suffered no denial, or other injury, that would allow him to challenge the reinstatement process as well.”
     Virginia is one of four states that requires felons to file applications for reinstatement. In most states, voting rights automatically return once a non-violent felon’s sentence is completed.
     This requirement nevertheless does not violate the Eighth Amendment, according to the ruling.
     “If the only differences between the commonwealth and a sizeable group of other states are that a person in Virginia must meet certain basic and eminently reasonable criteria for eligibility, and file a straightforward petition for reinstatement, this court cannot conclude that its application process renders its felon disenfranchisement provision cruel and unusual,” Gibney wrote.

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