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PLN associate editor mentioned in article re Tennessee voting rights suit

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2008.
PLN associate editor mentioned in article re Tennessee voting rights suit - Tennessean 2008

September 24, 2008

Judge rejects suit to restore felon voting rights

Thousands could have voted Nov. 4

Staff Writer

A federal judge in Nashville has rejected all but one portion of a suit that could have restored the voting rights of thousands of convicted felons in time for the Nov. 4 election.

Tennessee is one of 48 states that strip felons of their voting rights. But it is one of only 11 states that do not automatically restore those rights when offenders complete their sentences and probation or parole requirements.

Felons in Tennessee must also pay all restitution and child support before their rights — including the right to vote — can be restored.

In a 19-page ruling made public Tuesday, Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Wiseman Jr. said Tennessee's law could stand because the U.S. Constitution allows convicted felons to be stripped of their voting rights.

Therefore, the state law requiring convicted felons to be current on their child support payments in order to have their voting rights restored does not constitute an illegal poll tax.

The law does not "raise any of the concerns that resulted in the prohibition of poll taxes in the first place," Wiseman wrote in his ruling.

Poll taxes were widely used in the South along with violence, intimidation and other measures to bar blacks from voting.

Tennessee's felon disenfranchisement law was passed in 2006 in an effort to clarify and simplify an earlier law that took the right to vote away from some convicted felons but not others based on the date of the conviction, the crime and other factors, according to Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee.

The law disproportionately affects poor and minority voters, Weinberg said.

In February, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of three Tennessee convicted felons who have completed their jail time, probation and parole.

"It's very disappointing that this court has decided that one's right to vote is basically dependent on their financial status," Weinberg said.

"Our plaintiffs are perfect examples of people who would be paying child support if they could. … They are model parents working jobs.

"Really, these are people you would want for your next-door neighbor, and these are folks who want to vote and want to be part of the society in which they live."

One of the men who filed suit in February, Terrence Johnson, has been unable to register to vote in Shelby County because of unpaid court-ordered restitution associated with his wire fraud conviction and a $1,200 overdue child support tab.

Johnson, however, has custody of his daughter, according to the group's suit.

A second man, Jim Harris, was convicted of drug offenses and burglary in the mid-1990s and a drug offense in 2001. He owes no court-ordered restitution but does owe $2,500 in overdue child support.

A third man participating in the suit, Alex Friedmann, is a resident of Davidson County, a journalist and a prisoner rights advocate, convicted of assault and aggravated armed robbery in 1989.

After completing his sentence, probation and parole, Friedmann's request for the restoration of his voting rights was rejected on the grounds that he owes more than $1,000 in court-ordered restitution.

Friedmann says there are no court records indicating how much restitution he must pay, so no agency will accept his restitution payments.

Wiseman's ruling dismissed all but Friedmann's claims. An Oct. 3 case management conference has been set in that matter, as well as a March 17 trial.

Nancy Abudu, the Atlanta-based ACLU Voting Rights Project attorney representing the men, said the judgment unveiled Tuesday will be appealed but the timing will depend on action in Friedmann's case.