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Lawyers for the purportedly disproportionate number of black and minority felons whose convictions cost them their voting rights are girding for a round of legal battles to restore their franchise. They claim state laws disenfranchising felons, in tandem with law enforcement policies that put a disproportionate number of blacks in the criminal justice system, have an effect similar to past unconstitutional laws restricting the black vote. The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimates that black men are disenfranchised at seven times the national average. About 1.4 million black men-or 13% of the nation’s potential black voters-are disenfranchised, according to the group. At the heart of two federal disenfranchisement cases in New York-consolidated for argument at the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June-is whether Congress’ 1982 revision of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act bars states from disenfranchising minority felons. The first case, Hayden v. Pataki, No. 00-8596 (S.D.N.Y.), alleges that New York’s felon disenfranchisement statute violates the equal protection clause and the Voting Rights Act because it has a disproportionate impact on minorities, functions to dilute minority voting strength and is racially discriminatory. In the second, Muntaqim v. Coombe, No. 01-7260 (2d Cir.), an inmate serving a life sentence claims the same law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The state, the suit alleges, applies a “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting” in a way that denies voting rights on the basis of race or color. The U.S. Supreme Court denied review late last year. Janai S. Nelson, director of the political participation section of the New York City-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund and lead lawyer in Hayden, said the case is “not only about race and criminal justice. It’s about democracy and full and equal access to the ballot box.” Jonathan W. Rauchway of Davis Graham & Stubbs in Denver, the lead plaintiff’s lawyer in Muntaqim, said that despite the merits of his particular case and the “emotional heft” of the related law and order issue, the question before court concerns “the scope of the Voting Rights Act and congressional power to legislate racial discrimination in voting.” Elsewhere, the 11th Circuit affirmed summary judgment last week for Florida in Johnson v. Bush, No. 02-14469, a case out of Miami federal court challenging Florida’s felon-disenfranchisement law. The office of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer declined to comment. Jessie A. Allen, a public interest lawyer with New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and lead attorney for the Johnson plaintiffs, said she plans to appeal the court’s en banc decision.

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