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Muntaqim v. Coombe (amicus)

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Synopsis

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed an amicus brief in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Muntaqim v. Coombe that challenged the state law which disenfranchised those convicted of felonies who are serving sentences or are on parole.

Description

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. This section 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 was 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 a "denial or abridgement" of the right to vote in those communities.

The district court judge found that applying the Voting Rights Act test to state felony disenfranchisement laws would pose serious Constitutional questions about Congress's power to legislate 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 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 decision 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 the circuits are split on this issue (the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously held the Voting Rights Act could be applied to felony disenfranchisement laws). The oral argument on rehearing took place on June 22, 2005.

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. 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 Section 5-106. 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.

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.