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A right to vote for inmates? Get real, 9th Circuit

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Jan. 6, 2010 at 7:52 pm |
January 6, 2010 5:24 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Courtesy of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Gary “Green River Killer” Ridgway may soon enjoy the right to vote. And Robert Yates Jr., who also had a nasty habit of murder by the dozen.

And any number of other murderers, rapists and other predators now housed in Washington’s prisons.
That is the absurd result of a 9th Circuit Court panel decision Tuesday that ordered the state to let all inmates vote – on the grounds that some might be imprisoned as part of a pattern of racial discrimination.

State Attorney General Rob McKenna has already announced he will appeal this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. It seems likely the high court will take an interest in it, because three other federal appeals courses have ruled to the contrary in similar cases.

Tuesday’s “Let Ridgway Vote” decision resulted from a long-running lawsuit filed by several Washington felons. Their lawyers persuaded two judges on a three-judge panel that the federal Voting Rights Act should void the Washington Constitution’s prohibition of inmate voting. Nearly every other state enforces a similar prohibition.

The Voting Rights Act has a long, complex history. Originally written to prevent Jim Crow states from cheating blacks out of ballots, it is designed to protect minorities from discrimination at the polls.
Suffice it to say that many perfectly competent federal judges have not read the law the way the 9th Circuit panel did. As the dissenting 9th Circuit judge said, his court is “a crowd of one amongst the circuits.”

The premise of the ruling is that Washington’s criminal justice system is so saturated with racism – its police, prosecutors and judges so eager to search, arrest, charge and convict blacks – that disenfranchising inmates is tantamount to disenfranchising minorities.

That premise is based in turn on two studies done by two University of Washington sociologists that purportedly establish rampant racism in every corner of the state’s criminal justice system.

The court’s reliance on those two studies could be criticized in various ways: One study covered only Seattle, for example. It concluded, among other things, that the inclination of Seattle police to focus on street crime was evidence of discrimination. As the dissent noted, a more reasonable conclusion might be that such a focus reflected an interest in protecting the most people possible.

We have no doubt that discrimination comes into play in the criminal justice system. We do doubt that Washington’s police and prosecutors are Neanderthals who would have been at home in 1950s Mississippi. The discrimination that does exist should be fixed – at the street level. It shouldn’t be “fixed” by letting duly convicted, imprisoned lawbreakers help choose the people who write the laws.

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