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A suit filed Jan. 6 in Union County, N.J., alleges that a state law denying voting rights to parolees and probationers discriminates against blacks and Hispanics due to their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. The suit, New Jersey State Conference — NAACP v. Harvey, names among its plaintiffs 10 individuals currently deprived of the right to vote because they are on probation or parole. But the suit is putatively on behalf of all blacks and Hispanics, claiming the statute dilutes their political power as a group and deprives them of “an equal opportunity to influence the political process.” The complaint, which seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, asks for designation as a “test case” or, alternatively, for class certification. Lee Moore, a spokesman for Attorney General Peter Harvey, says the complaint is under review and he declines comment. At issue is N.J.S.A. 19:4-1(8), which denies the right of suffrage to anyone locked up, or on parole or probation for an indictable offense under the law of New Jersey, another state or the United States. The complaint charges that the impact of the law is especially harsh on African-Americans and Hispanics, who together comprise more than 62 percent of those currently denied the right to vote, though they total only 27 percent of the overall population. The plaintiffs blame minorities’ disproportionate disenfranchisement on their arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentences in disproportionately high numbers and allege the resulting loss of voting rights is therefore “an extension of the discrimination which is endemic to the criminal justice system.” The dilution of minority voting strength undermines their political interests, the complaint alleges. It quotes the opinion of the three-judge district court panel that upheld New Jersey’s redrawn congressional map in 2001, stating: “the African-American and Hispanic communities often vote as a bloc, a fact which may be considered in assessing the ability of either community to elect candidates of its choice” in People v. Bartels. According to a report made public on Jan. 6, blacks in New Jersey were 13 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated in 2001, the highest ratio of any state. Of every 100,000 blacks, 2,117 were locked up, compared with only 161 of every 100,000 whites, said the report by the Sentencing Project of Washington, D.C., an organization that advocates for alternatives to prison. Another Sentencing Project report, released in October 1998, found that in 1996, 17.7 percent of all black men in New Jersey, 65,200 people, were disenfranchised felons, as contrasted with 2.3 percent of the general population. New Jersey is among 29 states that disqualify parolees and probationers, as well as those behind bars, from voting, according to Sentencing Project data. Another four states disenfranchise parolees but not probationers. At the extremes, seven states — Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska and Virginia — strip suffrage permanently. Two, Maine and Vermont, impose no barrier, even among those still incarcerated. FIRST STATE COURT SUIT ANYWHERE Frank Askin — director of the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, which filed the case along with the American Civil Liberties Union — says the suit is the first of its kind filed in any state court in the country. Three similar cases are pending in New York, Florida and Washington state, but all were brought in federal court under the Voting Rights Act. The New Jersey plaintiffs decided to sue in state court under the state equal protection clause to avoid confronting a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court precedent that has thwarted federal plaintiffs, says Askin. That precedent, a 6-3 opinion by Justice William Rehnquist in Richardson v. Ramirez, which read the 14th Amendment as allowing disenfranchisement of felons, poses a tough hurdle for suits under federal law. “It’s why the federal cases keep losing,” remarks Askin. New Jersey law has its own obstacles. A provision of the state Constitution allows the Legislature “to deprive persons of the right of suffrage who shall be convicted of such crimes as it may designate.” Art II, sec. 1, par. 7. The case will turn on the scope of the power delegated by the clause, in Askin’s view. Plaintiffs’ argument will be that the clause does not authorize the legislature to deny equal protection of the law.

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