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A group of former law enforcement and senior U.S. Department of Justice officials have filed an amicus brief urging a U.S. Circuit Court to restore voting rights to felons. The amicus brief is signed by 14 people, including former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, former Solicitor General Seth Waxman and numerous former U.S. Attorneys, including G. Douglas Jones and Wilma Lewis. The case, Johnson v. Bush, No. 02-14469C, challenges the validity of a Florida law that strips felons of all voting rights even after they have finished serving time and rejoined society. It was rejected on summary judgment last July and will be argued before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March. James Johnson, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney who is now a partner at Morrison & Foerster of San Francisco and co-counsel on behalf of the plaintiffs, said that having such prominent law enforcement figures as strong advocates strengthens their argument: “It is a very powerful signal about what, from a policy perspective, makes sense here.” Florida is one of eight states in the country that permanently disenfranchises felons, although it does reinstate the privilege in a small number of cases. The suit is on behalf of more than 600,000 ex-felons, or about 10.5 percent of the state’s black citizens of voting age and about 5 percent of Florida’s voting-age population. The lawsuit, brought by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, argues that the Florida law violates the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. The law enforcement amici focus on � 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from practices that deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race or color. They say in the brief that the permanent disenfranchisement of felons doesn’t support any legitimate penal interests of the state because it doesn’t advance prevention, deterrence or retribution of a crime. In fact, they argue that “Any such lifetime exclusion from voting gravely disserves the State’s overwhelming interest in rehabilitating the offender and re-integrating him into civil society.” The amici point out that the law, initially enacted in 1868 as part of Florida Reconstruction, intended to discriminate against blacks. One proponent of the law asserted that disenfranchisement would keep Florida from becoming “niggerized.” In the brief, filed by Paul Engelmayer and Paul Winke of Washington, D.C.’s Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, the amici argue that the updated 1968 law is substantively identical. In July, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King of the Southern District of Florida dismissed the suit on summary judgment. The judge held that with respect to the constitutional claims, there was binding precedent both in Florida, under Beacham v. Braterman, 3000 F. Supp. 182 (1969), and in federal courts because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24, 41 L. Ed. 2d 551, 94 S. Ct. 2655 (1974). The court also rejected the argument that the law was discriminatory, saying that the 1968 re-enactment “cleansed” Florida’s law of earlier discrimination. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice’s civil rights division has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the defendants. David Thompson of Washington, D.C.’s Cooper & Kirk, which is representing Florida, said the amici filings were further evidence of an attempt to make an “end run on the normal democratic process.” He said the matter should be a Florida legislative issue.

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