The Center for Constitutional Rights filed a friend of the court brief in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Muntaqim v. Coombe, which challenges the state law which disenfranchises those convicted of felonies who are serving sentences or are on parole. CCR argues that racism results in a disproportionate number of African-Americans and Hispanics being convicted of felonies; over 2% of the voting-age population of these communities is disenfranchised by the New York law under attack. The brief points out that many of these statutes (including New York’s) were enacted during the period of reconstruction precisely for the purpose of diminishing the votes of the newly freed slaves.
Under Section 5-106 of the New York Election Law, individuals in prison on a felony conviction as well as individuals on parole from a felony conviction are prohibited from voting. New York is one of 48 states that disenfranchise those with a felony conviction.
Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, an African American serving a life sentence in the custody of the New York, challenged the Section 5-106 under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provides, in relevant part, that "no voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any state… in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen… to vote on account of race or color." Muntaqim's central argument is that the racism of the criminal justice system, and the subsequent disproportionate number of African Americans and Hispanics disenfranchised by Section 5-106, results in an "denial or abridgement" of the right to vote in those communities.
The district court found that applying the Voting Rights Act test to state felony disenfranchisement laws would pose serious Constitutional questions about Congress's power to legislative under the 14th and 15th Amendments in light of recent "state's rights" jurisprudence. He further found that there was not a clear statement of intent by Congress for the Voting Rights Act to be applied to felon disenfranchisement laws. In other words, the judge found that the very Amendments, the result of the Civil War, that are aimed at eliminating state-sanctioned racism might not have given Congress the necessary power to eliminate state practices that result in the denial to vote based on race.
Surprisingly, the panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court by a vote of three to nothing. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals denied hearing the case in banc, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari despite the fact that there is a split in the circuits on this issue (the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously held the Voting Rights Act could be applied to felony disenfranchisement laws). In light of the Supreme Court's denial of certiorari, the Second Circuit granted in banc review.
While a number of amicus briefs were filed in the case, CCR filed the only brief on behalf of all individuals affected by Section 5-106.
According to Jeffrey Fogel, Legal Director at CCR, the "United States stands alone in the so-called democratic world, in denying the right to vote to convicted persons. The impact, both on the individual as well as the broader society, is significant. Most importantly, communities of color are being denied their full measure of participation in the society."
CCR filed the brief on its own behalf as well as on behalf of the National Alliance of Formerly Incarcerated Persons, the Osborne Association, the Coalition for Parole Restoration, Voice of the Ex-Offender, the 11th Episcopal District Lay Organization, the Ordinary People Society, The Center for Law and Justice and the Malcolm X Center.
Oral argument will take place April 7, 2005, with a decision expected sometime thereafter.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.