Richard and Mildred Loving’s Legal Entanglement with Anti-Miscegenation Laws

Last Saturday I saw the beautiful new movie “Loving,” which tells the true story about the love between Richard Perry Loving, a white man, and Mildred Delores Jeter, a black woman, who were married in June 1958 in the District of Columbia. Soon thereafter they returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia, where they established their marital abode and where they were criminally prosecuted and convicted for violating the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. They then were sentenced to one year in prison, but with suspension of the imposition of that sentence for 25 years on condition they live outside the state, which they did by returning to the District of Columbia.

Later the movie depicts  their challenge with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to the constitutionality of these Virginia statutes with the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruling in their favor.[1] Below is an actual photograph of the couple and one of the actors (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton) who played the couple in the movie.

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This beautiful movie prompted the following report of the legal details of their entanglement with anti-miscegenation laws.

Legal Proceedings in State Court

Their legal problems started with an October 1958 grand jury indictment charging the couple with violating the following provisions of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages:

  • “Punishment for marriage. — If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.” (Va. Code § 2-59)
  • “Leaving State to evade law.—If any white person and colored person shall go out of this State, for the purpose of being married, and with the intention of returning, and be married out of it, and afterwards return to and reside in it, cohabiting as man and wife, they shall be punished as provided in § 20-59, and the marriage shall be governed by the same law as if it had been solemnized in this State. The fact of their cohabitation here as man and wife shall be evidence of their marriage.” (Va. Code § 2-58)

On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to those charges and, as previously mentioned were sentenced to one year in jail, but with suspension of the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the couple leave the State and not return to Virginia together. The trial judge stated in his opinion that:

  • “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The Lovings then returned to the District of Columbia, where they established their home for at least the next eight and a half years.

In the meantime, nearly five years after their convictions, on November 6, 1963, with the aid of attorneys from the ACLU, they filed a motion in the Virginia state trial court to vacate the judgment of conviction and set aside the sentence on the ground that the statutes which they had violated were unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Nearly 15 months later, on January 22, 1965, the state trial judge denied the motion to vacate the sentences, and the Lovings perfected an appeal to the state’s Supreme Court of Appeals.[2]

On March 7, 1966, the seven justices of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the anti-miscegenation statutes and, after modifying the sentence, affirmed the convictions.[3]  The entire opinion was based upon that court’s having upheld the constitutional validity of these statutes in a 1955 case (Naim v. Naim) and concluding that there had not been any change in the law on this issue in the subsequent 11 years. As the Virginia court stated:

  • “Our one and only function in this instance is to determine whether, for sound judicial considerations, the Naim case should be reversed. Today, more than ten years since that decision was handed down by this court, a number of states still have miscegenation statutes and yet there has been no new decision reflecting adversely upon the validity of such statutes. We find no sound judicial reason, therefore, to depart from our holding in the Naim According that decision all of the weight to which it is entitled under the doctrine of stare decisis, we hold it to be binding upon us here and rule that Code, §§ 20-58 and 20-59, under which the defendants were convicted and sentenced, are not violative of the Constitution of Virginia or the Constitution of the United States.”

Proceedings in U.S. Supreme Court

The Lovings appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which noted probable jurisdiction on December 12, 1966.[4]

After the attorneys’ briefing and oral arguments, The Supreme Court on June 12, 1967, issued its unanimous decision holding that the Virginia anti-miscegenation statutes were unconstitutional.[5]

In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted that the two Virginia statutes in question were “part of a comprehensive statutory scheme aimed at prohibiting and punishing interracial marriages,”[6] that they were part of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, which was adopted in the “period of extreme nativism” of 1924 and that “[p]enalties for miscegenation arose as an incident of slavery, and have been common in Virginia since the colonial period.” Moreover, the opinion recognized that Virginia then was “one of 16 States which prohibit and punish marriages on the basis of racial classifications.”[7]

After rejecting various arguments advanced by the State of Virginia, the Chief Justice said, “There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy. We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

The Court’s opinion also concluded that the Virginia “statutes also deprive the Lovings of liberty without due process of law in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

“Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival. . . . To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Conclusion

 From a 2016 perspective, it is difficult for this blogger to believe that only 50 years ago 16 states in the U.S. still had anti-miscegenation laws and were trying to defend their constitutionality. As the movie clearly points out, the Lovings did not have the financial means to mount a challenge to these laws, and the legal assistance of organizations like the ACLU is absolutely necessary for such litigation to be conducted. [8]

While the various phases of the litigation were proceeding over nearly nine years, Mr. and Mrs. Loving had to live with this legal cloud hanging over them that prevented them from living in their native Virginia.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, the number of interracial marriages in the U.S. has increased from 0.4% in 1960 to 0.7% in 1970, 1.9% in 1980, 2.8% in 1990, 7.0% in 2000 and 10.0% in 2010. The date of the Supreme Court decision (June 12) is now remembered in the U.S. as “Loving Day” and the decision itself was cited as precedent in federal court decisions invalidating restrictions on same-sex marriage.

This case also reminded me of the personal story of Lawrence Hill, the noted Canadian author of “The Book of Negroes” about a young African woman who is kidnapped from her native village and taken by a slave ship to the U.S., where she becomes literate and is hired by the British forces at the end of the American Revolutionary War to create the actual Book of Negroes to register those Negroes who helped the British and who thereby were eligible to evacuate Manhattan with their forces. As discussed in a prior post, Hill’s parents— a black father and a white mother —were U.S. citizens who emigrated to Canada the day after they were married in 1953 in the District of Columbia in order to escape racial discrimination and anti-miscegenation laws. Both of them were involved in the human rights movement, an influence Hill readily acknowledges.

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[1] Dargis, Review: In ‘Loving,’ They Loved. A Segregated Virginia Did Not Love Them Back, N.Y. Times (Nov. 2, 2016)  The movie is directed by Jeff Nicols and stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.

[2] The Virginia trial court presumably was pressed finally to issue its decision on the motion to vacate by the Lovings commencing on October 28, 1964, a class action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia requesting that a three-judge court be convened to declare the Virginia anti-miscegenation statutes unconstitutional and to enjoin state officials from enforcing their convictions. On February 11, 1965, the three-judge District Court continued the case to allow the Lovings to present their constitutional claims to the highest state court.

[3] Loving v. Commonwealth,206 Va. 924, 147 S.E.2d 78 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1966) ; Naim v. Naim, 197 Va. 80, 87 S.E.2d 749 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1955). remanded, 350 U.S. 891 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 1955), aff’d, 197 Va. 734, 90 S.E.2d 849 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1956), appeal dismissed, 350 U.S. 985 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 1956).

[4] Loving v. Virginia, 385 U.S. 986 (1966).

[5] Loving v. Virginia, 386 U.S. 1 (1967). Mr. Justice Stewart submitted a brief concurring opinion to reiterate his  “belief that ‘it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor.’”

[6] Other provisions of the Virginia statutes automatically voided all marriages between “a white person and a colored person” without any judicial proceeding (§ 20-57) and defined “white persons” and “colored persons and Indians” for purposes of the statutory prohibitions (§§ 20-54 and 1-14).

[7] The other states with anti-miscegenation laws were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. (Justices Upset All Bans On Interracial Marriage, N.Y. Times (June 13, 1967).)

[8] As discussed in an earlier post, I was a pro bono volunteer attorney for the Minnesota ACLU chapter in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Minneapolis Police Department raid and arrests of citizens at a political fundraiser.

 

Reflections on Learning and Teaching

As a student of history, economics, political science, law and other humanities courses at six colleges and universities[1] and as an instructor at three such institutions,[2] I have participated in different ways of instructing and learning such bodies of knowledge and skills: college and university lectures, other lectures; seminars, research and writing; tutorials; the Socratic method; and role-playing. Similar methods were used in my practice as a litigating attorney and now as a blogger and ordinary citizen. Underlying all of them, of course, are reading and studying. Here are a septuagenarian’s lessons in life-long learning.

My thinking about this subject and writing this blog post were prompted by a recent article about the lecture as a mode of instructing and learning. That article by Molly Worthen, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was put into a broader context by her quoting John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University,” where he said the humanities taught a student “to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” Such a student learns “when to speak and when to be silent. He is able to converse, he is able to listen.”[3]

College and University Lectures

“A good lecture class,” Worthen says, teaches “comprehension and reasoning” by keeping “students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action.” It does so by emphasizing “the art of attention, the crucial first step in … ‘critical thinking.’” She quotes Monessa Cummins, the Chair of the Classics Department at Grinnell College, my alma mater, as saying the lecture places “a premium on the connections between individual facts . . . [and] the building of an argument.”

This is “hard work” for the students, Worthen adds, requiring them “to synthesize, organize and react as they listen.” Indeed, students need to be taught how to listen, and lecture courses are exercises in “mindfulness and attention building.” This skill cannot be assumed, but must be taught. One way of doing so, in Professor Cummins’ classes, is to assign one student in each session to present a critique of her argument at the subsequent small discussion section.

Such a lecture course teaches that “listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next–and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.“

This is enhanced, Worthen argues, by requiring the students to take notes by hand, not by typing them into a computer. The former makes it impossible for them to make verbatim transcripts of the lecture, but instead to synthesize as they listen. That may be true, in my opinion, when the lecturer does not provide the students or audience with an outline of the lecture.

Lecturing, on the other hand, with a PowerPoint outline and providing the students or audience members with the Notes Page version of the outline enables the student to glance at the entire presentation in advance and see how the individual points fit into the entire lecture or presentation and then add his or her notes to individual pages as the lecture proceeds. PowerPoint also facilitates the use of graphs, maps and photographs in the lecture. [4]

Worthen also recognizes the utility of combining a large lecture session with small discussions sections and thereby obtain the reactions and comments of the students.

My memories of my first exposure as a student to lecturing 58 years ago as a freshman at Grinnell College are fuzzy at best, but I do not recall being provided with tips on how to take full advantage of this form of instruction. I now wish I had been told how to listen, to be mindful and to synthesize as I listened. I wish I had had a professor assign one student in each session to present a critique of the lecture’s argument at the next class session. Of course, then all notes of a lecture were handwritten.

As a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford, 1961-1963, attendance at university lectures on these subjects, often by world-famous scholars, was optional. I attended some primarily to see and hear such people as philosophers A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle, economist J. R. Hicks and legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart, but regrettably I did not regularly do so. (Instead my attention was focused on tutorials as discussed below.)

As a law student at the University of Chicago, 1963-1966, the Socratic method was the dominant form of instruction, not lectures. The latter instead were formal occasions for all the students and faculty, usually provided by visiting scholars and judges. (The Socratic method also will be discussed below.)

In addition, I was a lecturer when I taught a course on the American Civil Law System at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm, when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law, when I was an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and when I was on the faculty of various continuing legal education courses while I was a practicing lawyer. That experience required me to review the material to be covered, to conduct any additional research I deemed necessary, to determine the main points to emphasize, to construct an outline for what I wanted to cover in the lecture and, in some cases, to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for use at the lecture.

Other Lectures

All of us obtain information and are educated, or not, in other oral presentations throughout our lives. I think of major political speeches like the State of the Union and Inaugural Addresses; other speeches at public events; and sermons at churches.

When, for example, I listen to speeches or presentations at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, I sometimes take handwritten notes and submit proposed questions for the moderator to ask the speaker. Later I also can go to the Forum’s website to re-listen to the speech. I also have written blog posts about some of these presentations. Another recent source of lectures for me is those offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) of the University of Minnesota.

For sermons at Westminster Presbyterian Church, I sometimes make handwritten notes of some of the points on the church bulletin in my hands while the morning prayer, hymns and choral anthems usually emphasize some of the sermon’s main points. I also have found that I learn more about the sermon’s lesson by reading its text when it is subsequently posted on the church’s website and by reading and reflecting on the Scripture passages for the sermon; additional insight is often providing by writing a blog post about a sermon.

Seminars

My best educational experience at Grinnell College was taking the Political Economy Seminar my senior year with nine other students and with faculty from the economics, history and political science departments. We read important books in the field, not textbooks, and wrote and presented our papers on the former for discussion by all.

The Washington Semester at American University in the Fall of 1959 provided another type of seminar experience as a group of students from all over the U.S. met with politicians, government officials and others to learn about the operations of the U.S. government and political process.

I also organized and led a liberal arts seminar for lawyers at Grinnell in 1984. After reading various materials, we gathered at the College to discuss American legal history, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), jurisprudence and the lives and challenges of being humane judges and lawyers. Our leaders were a federal appellate judge, a national ADR scholar, an American history professor, a jurisprudence professor and a practicing lawyer.

Being in a book group, for me at Westminster Presbyterian Church, is another seminar experience for groups of 12 or smaller. Reading an assigned book and then gathering for a discussion of the book led by one of the group usually leads to a greater understanding of the book and its issues. For example, I recently led my group in discussing David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” after I had written about the book in this blog.[5]

Research and Writing

During my student years I conducted factual and other research about various subjects and in the process learned a lot about those subjects as well as research skills. The task of then reducing that research into a paper on the subject provided more learning about the subject plus the process of writing such papers. Later as a practicing lawyer these skills were further developed with the aid of the legal process for obtaining evidence in lawsuits, including the examination of witnesses, and the writing of briefs and other legal papers under rules for their contents and length.

The student research paper I best recall was at American University. The topic was how political interest groups participate in important cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and more specifically in contempt-of-congress cases in that court. I identified such cases, read the Court’s opinions in the cases, interviewed staffers at the relevant congressional committees (especially the House Un-American Activities Committee) and at the relevant political interest groups (especially the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors) and then spent a lot of time at the Supreme Court’s Library reading the briefs in the case, including those from the ACLU and the AAUP as amici curiae (friends of the court). The paper summarized this research and conclusions.

My enjoyment of research and writing continued as a practicing lawyer, both in my work as a lawyer and as a putative scholar. For example while at Harvard Law School for a short summer course, I spent time in its library doing research about Joseph Welch and Edward Burling, both prominent attorneys who were graduates of that Law School and of Grinnell College, and interviewing attorneys at Welch’s Boston law firm, about his representation of the U.S. Army in the McCarthy hearings of 1954. Later I wrote articles about both of them for the Grinnell Magazine [6] and even later with excerpts from the Welch article in this blog.[7]

A similar process was involved as a law student in researching and writing comments for the law review and as a lawyer in writing briefs.

Grinnell College recently has enhanced its use of research and writing as an educational method by adding a public website, The Grinnell Post, that hosts student essays about current events, public debates, and issues of interest to the Grinnell community. Its mission is to allow students to share their work in a public forum and foster conversations with a diverse readership and solicit their comments and criticism.

Another Grinnell effort to incorporate digital technology in the liberal arts is a website, Ashplan, initially devoted to James Joyce’s Ulysses. It seeks to foster the inheritance of classroom culture; that is, it forges connections among students studying the same material at different times, allowing new students to benefit from, remix, and add to the work of their predecessors.

Tutorials

As discussed in a prior post, the tutorial was the primary mode of undergraduate education at Oxford. During each week of the three terms of the academic year, I would have two tutorials, usually with only one other student and the tutor and sometimes only by myself with the tutor. The assignment was always in the form of a question with the tutor’s suggestions of books and articles one should read.

As a result, most of my time each week at Oxford was spent in the university libraries reading those sources and other relevant materials, figuring out how I would answer the assigned question and writing an essay setting forth that answer and analysis. Then I would see the tutor again and read my essay for critiquing and discussion.

I loved the independence of this system and being “forced” to come to a conclusion on an issue and to construct my own analysis and documentation for my conclusion. This was exactly the skill that was tested in Oxford’s university-wide examinations at the conclusion of my student-years, as also discussed in a prior post.

Grinnell College now has a First-Year Tutorial for all freshmen in groups of about 12 students that are led by “faculty members . . . from all academic departments . . . in more than 35 topics.” For the Fall of 2015 these include “Crisis, Liberation, Justice, and Leadership;“ “Racism: Color, Culture, Class; “ and “The Origins of Capitalism.” Every tutorial emphasizes writing, critical thinking and analysis, and oral presentation and discussion skills. The tutorial professors also serve as the advisers to their tutorial students until they declare a major field of study.

Socratic Method

After the treasured independence of the Oxford undergraduate experience, I initially was shocked in my first weeks in the Fall of 1963 as a student at the University of Chicago Law School. Now I was in large classes with daily assignments of certain pages in our large casebooks. The professors did not lecture. Instead they cross-examined individual students, one-by-one, about what the holding of a particular case was and what the result should be in a hypothetical case. We were being taught, we were told, how to think like a lawyer.

This method clearly taught you how to read a judicial opinion very carefully (and very painfully and slowly during that first semester of law school), to analyze that opinion to determine what its holding was and to think about the arguments that could be raised in similar, but different, hypothetical cases. Then in class you had to learn how to think on your feet and respond to questions from the professor as you would later do as a lawyer when questioned by a judge.

Reading and analyzing constitutions, statutes and regulations are also important for a lawyer, but I do not have clear memories of how that was done in my law student years. Of course, many judicial opinions concern judicial interpretations of such materials, and the overall law-school emphasis on reading and analyzing judicial opinions covered that methodology.

Learning how to do legal research and write legal briefs is another important part of law school. In addition, being a member of a law review staff and editorial board gives experience in writing and editing articles about legal topics.

Role-Playing

Participating in moot courts and playing the role of a lawyer making an argument to a court is another prominent method of legal education. I did not take advantage of this opportunity in law school as I was busy working on the law review doing legal research and writing and editing articles for the journal.

I, however, employed this method when I taught for one semester at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm. I acted as a trial court judge hearing arguments by students as lawyers on a motion to compel production of a college tenure committee records in a hypothetical lawsuit brought by a professor against a college for denial of tenure. A different kind of role playing in that course was having the students, in lieu of a final examination, play the role of a justice of the Iowa Supreme Court and write an opinion deciding a case after reading the briefs in the case along with my memoranda summarizing some of the legal issues and after hearing the case argued before the actual Court.

I also used the moot-court method when I was an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School; I acted as a federal district court judge hearing arguments on a motion to dismiss a complaint under U.S. federal statutes (the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act) alleging a corporate defendant’s violations of human rights in other countries. I also acted as a judge of an immigration court to hear arguments on whether the court should grant an application for asylum by someone who allegedly had a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country due to political opinion or other protected ground.

I used a different kind of role-playing when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law. In a first-year civil procedure class, I played the role of a law firm partner while the students played the roles of associate attorneys working for me as we collectively identified issues, potential arguments and additional legal research needed for preparing a civil complaint under the strictures of Rule 11’s requiring such a pleading to be warranted by existing law or a non-frivolous argument for changing the law and by evidentiary support.

In such role-playing exercises, the student learns about procedural and substantive law, identification of legal and evidentiary issues and how to write and analyze briefs and make oral arguments.

In my experience, this is an effective way of learning several areas of law plus the skills of advocacy, and most students appreciate these opportunities to have a taste of what it is like to be a lawyer.

Conclusion

I am fortunate to have experienced different methods of teaching and learning from able practitioners of the different methods. I have learned in each of these settings and cannot say one is better than another. A lot depends on the size of the audience and the stage of your educational career. Seminars and tutorials require a small number of students while lectures are more appropriate, if not required, for a large number of students. I hope that I have been able to convey the same excitement of learning when I have been the instructor.

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[1] Grinnell College, 1957-1961; American University (Washington Semester), 1959; University of Oxford, 1961-1963; University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966; Harvard Law School (Summer Program), 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2001.

[2] Grinnell College, 1982, 1984; University of Iowa College of Law, 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2002-2010.

[3] Worthen, Lecture Me. Really, N.Y. Times Sunday Review (Oct. 18, 2015).

[4] Aaron Fichtelberg, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, strongly disagrees on the value of PowerPoint. Indeed, he argues that it “turns good teachers into mediocre ones and mediocre lectures into a sludge of unengaging facts.” According to him, it “forces rigidity on the content of the course and passivity onto the students.” I agree that sometimes such use is boring. But as with all of these modes of teaching, there are the good and the bad. Other opinions?

[5] The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (May 1, 2015); David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015); David Brooks Speaks on the Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life (May 16, 2015).

[6] Good Night, and Good Luck: The Movie’s Offstage Hero, Joseph Welch, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2006, at 12; Edward Burnham Burling, Grinnell’s Quiet Benefactor, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2009, at 21.

[7] Joseph Welch Before the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 14, 2012); The U.S. Army’s Hiring of Attorney Joseph Welch for the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 8, 2012); Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 6, 2012); U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Nemesis: Attorney Joseph Welch (June 4, 2012); President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 10, 2012); Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 12, 2012); Legal Ethics Issues in the “Anatomy of a Murder” Movie (June 12, 2012).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Restrictions on Felon Voting Do Not Comply with International Law

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International law regarding voting is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant) that was approved and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966. The drafting of the treaty was the work of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in which the U.S. participated.[1]

The Covenant’s Terms and Parties

This Covenant establishes an international minimum standard of governmental conduct for rights of self-determination; legal redress; equality; life; liberty; freedom of movement; fair, public and speedy trial of criminal charges; privacy; freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion; peaceful assembly; freedom of association; family; and participation in public life. The Covenant forbids “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;” slavery; arbitrary arrest; double jeopardy; and imprisonment for debt.

Article 25 (b) of this treaty states, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 [race, colour [sic], sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status] and without unreasonable restrictions: To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” (Emphasis added.)

On June 8, 1992, the U.S. finally became a party to the treaty, nearly 26 years after the Covenant had been approved by the U.N. The U.S. accession to the treaty was subject to five reservations, five understandings, four declarations and one proviso. Potentially relevant to the issue of voting rights for felons are the U.S. understandings that (1) distinctions based on . . . other status [felon?] are permissible if rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective; . . . (3) certain practices concerning accused and convicted individuals were preserved; . . . and (5) the obligation of the U.S. federal government to enforce the Covenant in the federal system were limited.”[2]

Earlier (on March 23, 1976), the Covenant had gone into force, in accordance with its Article 49(1), after 35 states had ratified or acceded to the treaty. Now there are 168 states parties to the Covenant.

The Covenant’s Human Rights Committee

UN Human Rts

Article 28 of this treaty establishes a Human Rights Committee that is empowered under Article 40 to receive, analyze and comment on periodic reports from parties to the treaty regarding their compliance with its provisions, and the Committee may also issue authoritative “general comments” about the treaty.

The Committee’s General Comment No. 25 Regarding Voting Rights

On August 27, 1996, the Committee issued its General Comment No. 25: “The right to participate in public affairs, voting rights and the right of equal access to public service.”

It stated, in part, “The right to vote at elections and referenda must be established by law and may be subject only to reasonable restrictions, such as setting a minimum age limit for the right to vote. It is unreasonable to restrict the right to vote on the ground of physical disability or to impose literacy, educational or property requirements. Party membership should not be a condition of eligibility to vote, nor a ground of disqualification.” (Para. 10) (Emphasis added.)

The Comment added, “In their reports, States parties should indicate and explain the legislative provisions which would deprive citizens of their right to vote. The grounds for such deprivation should be objective and reasonable. If conviction for an offence [sic] is a basis for suspending the right to vote, the period of such suspension should be proportionate to the offence [sic] and the sentence. Persons who are deprived of liberty but who have not been convicted should not be excluded from exercising the right to vote.” (Para. 14)

Proceedings Regarding the Most Recent U.S. Report to the Committee [3]

  1. The U.S. Report to the Committee.

The U.S. has submitted four periodic reports to the Committee, most recently on December 30, 2011, which stated the following with respect to voting rights:

  • “Criminal conviction and mental incompetence. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution explicitly recognizes the right of states to bar an individual from voting ‘for participation in rebellion, or other crime.’ Accordingly, most states deny voting rights to persons who have been convicted of certain serious crimes. The standards and procedures for criminal disenfranchisement vary from state to state. In most states, this inability to vote is terminated by the end of a term of incarceration or by the granting of pardon or restoration of rights.” (Para. 457) (Emphasis added.)
  • Felony disenfranchisement is a matter of continuing debate in the states of the United States. It has been criticized as weakening our democracy by depriving citizens of the vote, and also for its disproportionate affects on racial minorities. As noted in the Second and Third Periodic Report, in August 2001 the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Presidents Carter and Ford, recommended that all states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences. At the time of the previous report, a number of states had moved to reduce the scope of felony disenfranchisement or otherwise to facilitate the recovery of voting rights for those who can regain them.” (Para. 458) (Emphasis added.)
  • “Since the submission of the Second and Third Periodic Report in 2005, modification of state laws and procedures has continued. For example, in 2005, the Governor of Iowa issued an executive order eliminating lifetime disenfranchisement for persons convicted of an “infamous crime” and making restoration of voting rights automatic for persons completing their sentences. This order, however, was revoked by a successor Governor in 2011. Also in 2005, the legislature in Nebraska repealed its lifetime ban on voting for all felons and replaced it with a 2-year post-sentence ban. In 2006, Rhode Island voters approved a referendum to amend the state’s constitution to restore voting rights to persons currently serving a sentence of probation or parole. In 2006, the Tennessee legislature amended its complex restoration system to provide a more straightforward procedure under which all persons convicted of felonies (except electoral or serious violence offenses) are now eligible to apply for a ‘certificate of restoration’ upon completion of their sentences. In 2007, the Maryland legislature repealed all provisions of the state’s lifetime voting ban and instituted an automatic restoration policy for all persons upon completion of a sentence.” (Para. 459)
  • “In 2009, the Washington state legislature enacted the Washington Voting Rights Registration Act, which eliminates the requirement that persons who have completed their felony sentences pay all fees, fines and restitution before being allowed to vote. Florida, however, toughened its laws in March 2011, banning automatic restoration of voting rights for all convicted felons. Currently 48 states restrict voting by persons convicted of felonies in some manner; further information on felony disenfranchisement can be found in the Common Core Document.” (Para. 459)
  • “In July 2009, a bill entitled the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009 was introduced in both the Senate (S. 1516) and the House of Representatives (H.R. 3335). This bill would establish uniform standards restoring voting rights in elections for federal office to Americans who are no longer incarcerated but continue to be denied their ability to participate in such elections. A hearing on H.R. 3335 was held in the House of Representatives on March 16, 2010, but the bills did not proceed further. This legislation has been reintroduced in the House in the 112th Congress (H.R. 2212).” (Para. 460)[4]
  1. The Committee’s List of Issues for the U.S.

On April 29, 2013, the Committee issued its “List of issues” for response by the U.S. Its paragraph 26(a) stated, “Please provide information on: (a) The rationale for prohibiting persons with felony convictions from voting in federal elections once they have completed their sentence. Please provide information on steps taken to ensure that states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences and those who have been released on parole. Please also provide information on the extent that the regulations relating to deprivation of votes for felony conviction impact on the rights of minority groups.” (Emphasis added.)

  1. U.S. Replies to the Committee’s List of Issues

On July 5, 2013, the U.S. submitted its replies to the Committee’s list of issues. In paragraph 128, the U.S. stated, “The U.S. Constitution generally provides that governments of the individual states, not the U.S. Congress, determine who is eligible to vote in their state. Congress has the power to regulate elections for federal offices and has constitutional authority to eradicate discrimination in voting through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. According to the Brennan Center of NYU Law School, 48 states restrict voting by persons convicted of felony offenses in some manner, although the majority of these states provide for restoration of voting rights to felons who have been released from prison and/or are no longer on parole or probation. A few states prohibit felons from voting for life. Legal challenges alleging that state felon disenfranchisement laws violate either the U.S. Constitution’s non-discrimination principle or other federal voting rights statutes have generally not succeeded absent proof of racially discriminatory purpose.” (Emphasis added.)

  1. U.S. Attorney General’s Statement About Felony Disenfranchisement
Attorney General                    Eric Holder
Attorney General       Eric Holder

Outside the context of the Committee’s review of the U.S. report, on February 11, 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made extensive and powerful comments regarding felony disenfranchisement in his speech, “Criminal Justice Reform,” at Georgetown University Law Center. He said the following:

  • “[W]e’ve seen that maintaining family connections, developing job skills, and fostering community engagement can reduce the likelihood of re-arrest. And we know that restoring basic rights – and encouraging inclusion in all aspects of society – increases the likelihood of successful reintegration.  We’ve taken significant steps forward in improving reentry policies and addressing the unintended collateral consequences of certain convictions.”
  • “Yet formerly incarcerated people continue to face significant obstacles.  They are frequently deprived of opportunities they need to rebuild their lives. And in far too many places, their rights – including the single most basic right of American citizenship – the right to vote – are either abridged or denied.”
  • “As the Leadership Conference Education Fund articulated very clearly in . . . [its] recent report, ‘there is no rational reason to take away someone’s voting rights for life just because they’ve committed a crime, especially after they’ve completed their sentence and made amends.’  On the contrary: there is evidence to suggest that former prisoners whose voting rights are restored are significantly less likely to return to the criminal justice system.  As . . . [this] report further notes, a study recently conducted by a parole commission in Florida found that, while the overall three-year recidivism rate stood at roughly 33 percent, the rate among those who were re-enfranchised after they’d served their time was just a third of that.”
  • “Unfortunately, the [Florida] re-enfranchisement policy that contributed to this stunning result has been inexplicably and unwisely rolled back since that study was completed.  And, in other states, officials have raised hurdles to be faced by those with past convictions seeking to regain their access to the ballot box.  And that’s why I believe that . . . [it] is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.”
  • “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive.  By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.  They undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies. . . . At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression. And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”
  • “The history of felony disenfranchisement dates to a time when these policies were employed not to improve public safety, but purely as punitive measures – intended to stigmatize, shame, and shut out a person who had been found guilty of a crime.  Over the course of many decades – court by court, state by state – Americans broadly rejected the colonial-era notion that the commission of a crime should result in lifelong exclusion from society.”
  • “After Reconstruction, many Southern states enacted disenfranchisement schemes to specifically target African Americans and diminish the electoral strength of newly-freed populations.  The resulting system of unequal enforcement – and discriminatory application of the law – led to a situation, in 1890, where ninety percent of the Southern prison population was black.  And those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives.  They could not vote.”
  • “Yet – despite this remarkable, once-unimaginable [civil rights] progress – the vestiges, and the direct effects, of outdated practices remain all too real. In many states, felony disenfranchisement laws are still on the books.  And the current scope of these policies is not only too significant to ignore – it is also too unjust to tolerate.”
  • “Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans – 5.8 million of our fellow citizens – are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions.  That’s more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states.  And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.”
  • “Throughout America, 2.2 million black citizens – or nearly one in 13 African-American adults – are banned from voting because of these laws.  In three states – Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – that ratio climbs to one in five. These individuals and many others – of all races, backgrounds, and walks of life – are routinely denied the chance to participate in the most fundamental and important act of self-governance.  They are prevented from exercising an essential right.  And they are locked out from achieving complete rehabilitation and reentry – even after they’ve served the time, and paid the fines, that they owe.”
  • “Fortunately . . . in recent years we have begun to see a trend in the right direction.  Since 1997, a total of 23 states – including Nebraska, Nevada, Texas, and Washington State – have enacted meaningful reforms.  In Virginia, just last year, former Governor McDonnell adopted a policy that began to automatically restore the voting rights of former prisoners with non-violent felony convictions.”
  • “These are positive developments.  But many of these changes are incremental in nature.  They stop well short of confronting this problem head-on.  And although we can be encouraged by the promising indications we’ve seen, a great deal of work remains to be done.  Given what is at stake, the time for incrementalism is clearly over.”
  • “Eleven states continue to restrict voting rights, to varying degrees, even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole – including the State of Florida, where approximately 10 percent of the entire population is disenfranchised as a result.  In Mississippi, roughly 8 percent of the population cannot vote because of past involvement with the criminal justice system. In Iowa, action by the governor in 2011 caused the state to move from automatic restoration of rights – following the completion of a criminal sentence – to an arduous process that requires direct intervention by the governor himself in every individual case.  It’s no surprise that, two years after this change – of the 8,000 people who had completed their sentences during that governor’s tenure – voting rights had been restored to fewer than 12.”
  • “That’s moving backwards – not forward. It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values.  These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.  And so today, I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across the country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.”
  • “And I call upon the American people – who overwhelmingly oppose felony disenfranchisement – to join us in bringing about the end of misguided policies that unjustly restrict what’s been called the ‘most basic right’ of American citizenship.”
  • The “inconsistent patchwork of laws affecting felony disenfranchisement varies so widely between states – and, in some places, between cities and counties – that even those who administer the laws are sometimes unfamiliar with how to apply them. The New York Times noted in 2012 that this kind of confusion means that many who are legally allowed to vote erroneously believe that their rights are restricted.  And too often, those who do understand their rights are wrongfully turned away.”
  • “[P]ermanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system.  It has never been shown to prevent new crimes or deter future misconduct.   And there’s no indication that those who have completed their sentences are more likely to commit electoral crimes of any type – or even to vote against pro-law enforcement candidates.
  • “What is clear – and abundantly so – is that these laws sever a formerly incarcerated person’s most direct link to civic participation.  They cause further alienation and disillusionment between these individuals and the communities . . . . And particularly at a time when our prisons are overflowing – and many who are serving sentences for nonviolent drug crimes find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration – it is counterproductive to exclude these individuals from the voting franchise once their involvement with the corrections system is at an end.  It is contrary to the goals that bring us together today.”
  • “Whenever we tell citizens who have paid their debts and rejoined their communities that they are not entitled to take part in the democratic process, we fall short of the bedrock promise – of equal opportunity and equal justice – that has always served as the foundation of our legal system.  So it’s time to renew our commitment – here and now – to the notion that the free exercise of our fundamental rights should never be subject to politics, or geography, or the lingering effects of flawed and unjust policies.”
  1. Committee’s Hearings

At a Committee hearing on March 14, 2014, an U.S. representative (Roy Austin, Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice) said, “Persons convicted of crimes were not necessarily informed before sentencing that they would lose their right to vote.“

Austin also stated later at that hearing, “There was no national guarantee ensuring that defendants and prisoners were made aware of the loss of the right to vote. However, in practice, whenever defendants took a plea or were sentenced, they were informed of the fact that they would lose certain constitutional rights. Furthermore, the American Bar Association had launched a website entitled the National Inventory on the Collateral Consequences of Conviction as part of an effort to help defence [sic] lawyers fully inform their clients of, inter alia, any rights they would lose as the result of a conviction for a crime.”

  1. Committee’s Concluding Observations

After reviewing all of the records regarding the U.S. report,[5] the Committee on March 26, 2014, adopted its Concluding Observations. Here is what it said in paragraph 24 about U.S. voting rights.

“While noting with satisfaction the statement by the Attorney General on 11 February 2014, calling for a reform of state laws on felony disenfranchisement, the Committee reiterates its concern about the persistence of state-level felon disenfranchisement laws, its disproportionate impact on minorities and the lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures in states. The Committee is further concerned that voter identification and other recently introduced eligibility requirements may impose excessive burdens on voters and result in de facto disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters, including members of minority groups. Finally, the Committee reiterates its concern that residents of the District of Columbia (D.C.) are denied the right to vote for and elect voting representatives to the United States Senate and House of Representatives (arts. 2, 10, 25 and 26)”

“The State party should ensure that all states reinstate voting rights to felons who have fully served their sentences; provide inmates with information about their voting restoration options; remove or streamline lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures; as well as review automatic denial of the vote to any imprisoned felon, regardless of the nature of the offence. The State party should also take all necessary measures to ensure that voter identification requirements and the new eligibility requirements do not impose excessive burdens on voters and result in de facto disenfranchisement. The State party should also provide for the full voting rights of residents of Washington, D.C.” (Emphasis in original.)

This very polite language is the way the Committee was saying the U.S. was not complying with the Convention’s provisions regarding voting.[6]

Conclusion

The U.S. problem of felon disenfranchisement still persists. The previously mentioned proposed federal Democracy Restoration Act has not been adopted. Only two states (Maine and Vermont) do not have any restrictions on voting by citizens convicted of a felony. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia restore voting after completion of the term of incarceration; four states, after incarceration and parole; 20 states, after incarceration and parole and probation. The other 11 states permanently ban voting by felons under certain conditions. In addition 10 states restrict some people convicted of misdemeanors from voting.

Therefore, the  U.S. is not complying with the Convention’s provisions regarding voting.

===========================================================

[1] Weissbrodt, Ni Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 141-43 (4th ed. LEXIS-NEXIS 2009). The Covenant is baed upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which states in Article 21(3), “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage . . . .”

[2] The long, convoluted history of the U.S. accession to the Covenant is discussed in a prior blog post.

[3] The most recent Committee’s consideration of the U.S. human rights record has been discussed in prior posts about the Committee’s hearings, its concluding observations and felon voting. The actual U.S. report, the list of issues, the U.S. replies to that list of issues, a summary of the hearings, the submissions from Civil Society Organizations and the concluding observations are available on the Committee’s website.

[4] The Democracy Restoration Act also was introduced in the Senate (S. 2017) in the 112th Congress, but it died in committees in both chambers.

[5] The record included several hundred submissions from Civil Society Organizations. Felony disenfranchisement was addressed by at least one such submission: the one from the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the Leadership Conference, the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Sentencing Project. It argued that U.S. felony disenfranchisement laws had a disproportionate impact on minorities, and it reviewed the history and rationale of such laws, the increasing international isolation of the U.S. on such laws, the terms of such laws and the legal challenges to such laws. This submission also criticized the U.S. reply to this issue on the Committee’s list of issues and suggested recommendations for the Committee to make to the U.S.

[6] Another treaty to which the U.S. is not a party–the Protocol 1 to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms–has been interpreted to ban national laws that “applied automatically to convicted prisoners in detention, irrespective of the length of their sentence and irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offence [sic] and their individual circumstances.” This was the decision in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights, which said “the severe measure of disenfranchisement was not to be resorted to lightly and the principle of proportionality required a discernible and sufficient link between the sanction and the conduct and circumstances of the individual concerned. “ (Hirst v. United Kingdom, 2005-IX Reports of Judgments & Decisions 195 (Eur. Ct. Hum. Rts. 2005),}

 

 

U.S. Citizens Convicted of Felonies Should Be Allowed To Vote

As mentioned in a prior post, the U.N. Human Rights Committee recently raised the issue of whether convicted felons should be entitled to vote in U.S. elections. As a result, the Committee recommended certain changes in those laws that will be discussed below.

First though we will look at U.S. laws on the subject before examining the U.N. Committee’s recommendations and ongoing efforts in the U.S. to reform these laws.

U.S. Laws on Voting by Felons

With certain exceptions, the determination of eligibility to vote in federal, state and local elections in the U.S. is left to the laws of the states.[1] Here is a summary of those laws:[2]

Number of States   Names of States and District of Colombia Felon Voting Status
2 Maine & Vermont Eligible to vote in or out of prison
14 District Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island & Utah Eligible to vote after term of incarceration
4 California, Colorado, Connecticut & New York Eligible to vote after term of incarceration + parole
20 Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, West Virginia & Wisconsin Eligible to vote after term of incarceration + parole + probation
11 Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia & Wyoming Not eligible unless various conditions are met

Since 1996 many states have passed laws to expand felon voting rights and to simplify the process for restoration of such rights. There, however, are a few outliers that have imposed greater restrictions; they include the following:

  • In 2011 the Florida Board of Executive Clemency adopted a new policy requiring all ex-felons to wait five and seven years before applying to regain voting rights.
  • In 2011 the Iowa governor revoked an automatic restoration of voting rights for all ex-felons and instead imposed a requirement for ex-felons to apply to regain such rights.
  • In 2012, South Carolina mandated that felons on probation could not have such restoration.

The bipartisan National Association of State Legislatures (NASL) points out several problems administering these laws that make it more difficult for former felons to vote:

  • “Even in states where ex-offenders automatically regain the right to vote upon completion of their sentence, the process of re-registering to vote often is difficult. One reason is the complexity of the laws and processes surrounding disenfranchisement. In some cases, it is difficult to determine whose rights can be restored. This can vary in some states according to the date of the crime, the conviction, or the release from prison, or the nature of the crime. The complex restoration process also can be daunting. It often involves lengthy paperwork, burdensome documentation, and the involvement and coordination of several state agencies.”
  • NASL adds that a “second barrier to restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders is the often inconsistent communication among agencies. The methods of communicating the loss and restoration of voting rights among courts, corrections and elections officials are not always reliable, timely or consistent. This inconsistency can result in uneven application of the law, even when the laws are clear.”
  • Another barrier, according to NASL, “is lack of information. Ex-offenders sometimes are not aware that they regain their voting rights automatically upon completion of their sentence. They go through life believing they cannot vote when, in fact, they can. In other cases, they are not informed of the process for regaining their rights or offered assistance in doing so. As long as they remain ignorant of the necessary steps, ex-offenders cannot begin the process of regaining voting rights.”
  • The “final obstacle” to former felons voting, says NASL, “is under-funding of parole boards in some states where offenders must apply to have their rights restored. A massive backlog of applications can exist because the agencies do not have adequate staff or resources to process them in a timely manner.”

As a result of these laws and their administration, an estimated 5,800,000 U.S. citizens were ineligible to vote in the 2008 elections. This included 1,400,000 African-American men, more than 676,000 women and 2,100,000 ex-felons who had completed their sentences. Another way of looking at this disenfranchisement, 7.7% of all African-American citizens were ineligible to vote in 2008.

All of this is happening with 2.2 million U.S. citizens in prison or jail in 2012, a larger share of the total population than in any other country and about five times greater than the average for other industrialized nations.

The U.N. Committee’s Recommendations

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides, in part, that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 [race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status]and without unreasonable restrictions: . . . (b) To vote . . . at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors. . . .”

As previously mentioned, this treaty created the U.N. Human Rights Committee and empowered it to conduct periodic reviews of compliance with that treaty by its States Parties, one of which is the United States.

Therefore, U.S. compliance with Article 25 regarding voting was one of the topics covered by the recent Committee’s report of its review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR.

The Committee first reiterated “its concern about the persistence of state-level felon disenfranchisement laws, its disproportionate impact on minorities and the lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures in states.”

The Committee then recommended that the U.S. should “ensure that all states reinstate voting rights to felons who have fully served their sentences, provide inmates with information about their voting restoration options and remove or streamline lengthy and cumbersome state voting restoration procedures, as well as review automatic denial of the vote to any imprisoned felon, regardless of the nature of the offence.”

U.S. Advocates for Expansion of Felon Voting Rights

A number of U.S. NGOs are advocates for expanding voting rights for felons. They include (a) the American Civil Liberties Union; (b) the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of over 200 national organizations promoting and protecting U.S. civil and human rights toward the goal of a more open and just society;[3] (c) the Sentencing Project, which works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration; (d) the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law;[4] and (e) the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

In addition, several prominent public officials have supported such reforms.

Earlier this year in a speech about criminal justice reform at Georgetown University, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made extensive remarks about the need for reforming our laws regarding felon voting.[5]

The Attorney General emphasized the need to do all we can to encourage the need for successful reintegration of individuals who had been convicted of felonies, including the restoration of the “single most basic right of American citizenship—the right to vote.” Otherwise such disenfranchisement perpetuates “the stigma and isolation” of former felons and increases “the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

Moreover, said Holder, such disenfranchisement has a “disparate impact on minority communities.” Today roughly 2,200,000 black citizens (or 1 in 13) are excluding from voting for this reason; in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia that ratio is 1 in 5. For Florida that represents 10% of the state’s potential electorate; in Mississippi, 8%.

Holder added that Iowa recently abolished automatic restoration of voting rights after completion of a criminal sentence in favor of an innocuous-sounding requirement to apply to the governor for such relief. However, according to Holder, after two years of the new policy, fewer than 12 such applications had been approved out of 8,000.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky repeatedly has called for expansion of felon voting rights. In February 2014 he testified before a Kentucky Senate committee in support of restoring the right to vote for many non-violent felons in his state. Paul said that restoring voting rights for those who have repaid their debt to society was simply the right thing to do. In other words, “One mistake in life shouldn’t permanently block a citizen’s access to the ballot box [because the] right to vote is among the most important rights we have. It is something for which people in other countries have lost their lives.”

Following Senator Paul’s testimony, the committee and then the full Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore the right to vote in Kentucky for many non-violent felons who have completed their sentences. If the Kentucky House approves the same measure and the two houses agree on a compromise bill, it will be on the ballot for voters to approve in November.[6]

In Virginia, former Governor Robert F. McDonnell (Republican) enacted a policy in 2012 that allowed those with non-violent felony convictions to have their voting rights automatically restored. In addition, McDonnell and his Democratic successor, Terry McAuliffe, have supported a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to ex-felons automatically upon the completion of their sentences.

Conclusion

This problem of obstacles to felons’ voting was brought home to me when I went door-knocking for the re-election of President Obama in 2012 and encountered several people who said they were not eligible to vote. They did not say why, but I surmised that they had been convicted of felonies and had not yet completed their parole or probation. I felt then (and now) that they were entitled as U.S. citizens to have their voices heard in the election.

Given the high levels of incarceration in the U.S. and the deplorable conditions in most of our prisons, these potential voters should provide a way to increase the importance of this public policy issue and to be a force for improving those conditions.

Another benefit of such reforms should be the elimination of the supposed “need” to have restrictive state voter “ID” laws to eliminate or reduce purported voter fraud. A Wisconsin voter “ID” law on April 29th was stricken down as unconstitutional by a federal district court.

I hope that all U.S. citizens become concerned about the disenfranchisement of our fellow citizens who have been convicted of felonies and become advocates for changing the state laws that cause this deprivation.

—————————————————————–

[1] The U.S Constitution provides that “Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations [set by the States for the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives] except [not] as to the Places of chusing Senators” (Art. I, sec. 4). The Fourteenth Amendment says,”All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.  No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (14th Amendment.) (The 14th Amendment also implicitly endorses a state’s denial or abridgment of a U.S. citizen’s right to vote because of participation in “rebellion, or other crime” in connection with allocation of seats in the House of Representatives.) The Constitution further provides, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude [slavery]” (15th Amendment) or “sex” (19th Amendment) or “age [18 years of age or older]” (26th Amendment). In addition, the federal Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and of 2006 imposed certain measures to implement the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, and last year the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an important part of the latter statute.

[2] Greater details on these laws are available on a ProCon website, on the Brennan Center website and on a map prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union.

[3] The Leadership Conference submitted its report on felon voting to the U.N. Human Rights Committee in connection with the latter’s review of U.S. human rights.

[4] The Brennan Center along with ACLU is supporting the proposed federal Democracy Restoration Act that would restore voting rights to ex-felons who had completed their incarceration. It was introduced in 2014 by Representative John Conyers, Jr. (H.R. 4459) and Senator Ben Cardin (S.2235).

[5] The U.N. Human Rights Committee’s concluding observations noted its “satisfaction” with Attorney General Holder’s speech, which also was applauded  by a New York Times editorial.

[6] On March 5th the Kentucky House rejected the Senate bill because it did not go far enough in expanding the voting rights, and by the end of March, legislators did not think a compromise was likely this session of the legislature. On April 16th, however, the House passed a bill that will prompt a conference committee to try to work out a compromise that both houses could accept.

U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Review of U.S. Human Rights

In March 2014, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (the Committee) made a very negative evaluation of how the United States of America (U.S.) was implementing and complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant), which is regarded as an important part of the International Bill of Rights.

Before we examine the Committee’s hearings that resulted in that very negative evaluation in subsequent posts, we will look at the background of the ICCPR and the events leading up to the Committee’s hearings and evaluation.

Background of the ICCPR

As discussed in a prior post, the ICCPR was approved and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966. The drafting of the treaty was the work of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in which the U.S. participated.

The ICCPR (in terms reminiscent of the U.S. Bill of Rights) establishes an international minimum standard of governmental conduct for rights of self-determination; legal redress; equality; life; liberty; freedom of movement; fair, public and speedy trial of criminal charges; privacy; freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion; peaceful assembly; freedom of association; family; and participation in public life. The ICCPR forbids “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;” slavery; arbitrary arrest; double jeopardy; and imprisonment for debt.

The ICCPR’s Part IV established the Human Rights Committee, and its Article 41 provides that periodically the States Parties to the treaty shall “submit reports on the measures they have adopted which give effect to the rights recognized . . . [in the treaty] and on the progress made in the enjoyment of those rights” and that the Committee “shall study [such] . . . reports . . . . [and make] such general comments as it may consider appropriate.”[1]

Under Articles 28 and 29 of the treaty, its states parties elect the 18 Committee members to four-year terms from “nationals of the States Parties . . . who shall be persons of high moral character and recognized competence in the field of human rights, consideration being given to the usefulness of the participation of some persons having legal experience, . . . [and] who shall be elected and shall serve in their personal capacity.”

The Committee, under Article 31, “may not include more than one national of the same State” and “consideration shall be given to equitable geographical distribution of membership and to the representation of the different forms of civilization and of the principal legal systems.”

As discussed in a prior post, the Covenant went into force on March 23, 1976, in accordance with its Article 49(1), after 35 states had ratified or acceded to the treaty. On October 5, 1977, the U.S. signed the treaty, but it was not until nearly 15 years later (June 8, 1992), that the U.S. ratified this treaty (with reservations) and became a state party thereto. Now there are 168 states parties to the treaty.

Events Leading Up to the Committee’s Evaluation 

1. U.S. Report. On December 30, 2011, the U.S. submitted to the Committee its 188-page Fourth periodic report.[2]

The report opened with these words of President Obama,“By no means is America perfect. But it is our commitment to certain universal values which allows us to correct our imperfections, to improve constantly, and to grow stronger over time. . . .”

The report then marched through the U.S. implementation of each of the 27 Articles of the ICCPR.

In conclusion, the U.S. report discussed the Committee’s Concluding Observations on the prior U.S. report that the U.S. “acknowledge the applicability of the Covenant with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction, but outside its territory, as well as its applicability in time of war.” The U.S., however, reiterated its position that the Covenant does not so apply.

With respect to the Committee’s prior request that the U.S. “consider in good faith the interpretation of the Covenant provided by the Committee,” the U.S. continued to reject the Committee’s interpretation on applicability, but said it “appreciates its ongoing dialogue with the Committee with respect to the interpretation and application of the Covenant, considers the Committee’s views in good faith, and looks forward to further discussions of these issues when it presents this report to the Committee.”

2. Committee’s List of Issues. On April 29, 2013, after reviewing the U.S. report and Common Core Document, the Committee issued its six-page, 27-paragraph List of Issues, which asked the U.S. to respond to the following:

  • U.S. constitutional and legal framework: clarify U.S. position on applicability of Covenant for individuals under its jurisdiction, but outside its territory; measures to ensure state and local authorities comply with the Covenant; whether a national human rights institution will be established; and whether the U.S. will withdraw its reservations to the Covenant.
  • Non-discrimination and equal rights of men and women: describe efforts to address racial disparities in criminal justice system and to eliminate all kinds of racial profiling against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians; provide information on imposition of criminal penalties on street people and on obstacles to undocumented migrants’ accessing health services and higher education institutions.
  • Right to life: provide information on various issues regarding the death penalty and victims of gun violence; and clarify how drone attacks allegedly comply with the Covenant and whether senior officers and lower-ranking soldiers have been investigated and punished for unlawful killings in armed conflict.
  • Prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and treatment of detainees: provide information on independent investigations of treatment of detainees, whether U.S. regards so-called “enhanced interrogation” to violate the Covenant, why the U.S. has not adopted a statute prohibiting torture within its territory, whether the U.S. systematically evaluates “diplomatic assurances” before transfers of detainees, addressing claims of police brutality and excessive use of force, regulation of electro-muscular-disruption devices, prohibition and prevention of corporal punishment of children and application of criminal law to minors, non-consensual use of medication in psychiatric and research institutions, solitary confinement, separation of juvenile from adults detainees, rights of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, rights of immigrant detainees and prevention of domestic violence.
  • Elimination of slavery and servitude: provide information on combatting human trafficking and protection of children from sexual exploitation.
  • Right to privacy: provide information on NSA surveillance.
  • Freedom of assembly and association: clarify why certain workers are excluded from right to organize in trade unions.
  • Freedom of movement, marriage, family and protection of minors: clarify whether all cases of individuals serving life sentences without parole for offenses committed as a minor have been reviewed and if U.S. will abolish such sentences; and provide information on children held at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Right to take part in conduct of public affairs: provide information on voting rights of citizens who have completed their sentences for felony convictions, states’ measures to impose legal or de facto disenfranchisement of voters and efforts to provide residents of District of Columbia right to vote and elect representatives to U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
  • Rights of minorities: provide information on protection of indigenous sacred sites and their rights to be consulted and consent to matters affecting their interests.

3. U.S. Replies. On July 5, 2013, the U.S. submitted its 28-page Replies to the List of Issues. It said the U.S. responded “with great pleasure” and was “pleased to participate in this process.” The U.S., it said, “in the spirit of cooperation, provided as much information as possible in response to the questions posed by the Committee.”

The U.S., however, maintained its position that the treaty did not have extraterritoriality, i.e., it did not apply to U.S. conduct outside the U.S. It did provide some additional information, but did not retract any of its previous positions that prompted the Committee’s List of Issues.

4. Civil Society Organizations’ Submissions. Sometime prior to October 2013, 138 reports about the status of U.S. human rights were submitted to the Committee by civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, Physicians for Human Rights and Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights.

5. Postponement. The Committee’s review of the U.S was scheduled for October 2013, but was postponed until March 2014, pursuant to a U.S. request due to the then ongoing U.S. government shutdown.[3]

6. U.S. Delegation. On March 7, 2014, the U.S. submitted to the Committee the list of members of the U.S. delegation for the upcoming session. The U.S. Representative was Mary McLeod, Principal Deputy Legal Adviser, Office of the Legal Advisor, Department of State. She was to be aided by 27 Advisers from the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Interior; the U.S. Mission to the U.N.; the Attorney General of the State of Mississippi; the Mayor’s Office of Salt Lake City, Utah; and a Private Sector Adviser (a private attorney from Los Angeles, California).

Conclusion

On March 13 and 14, 2014, the Committee held hearings in Geneva, Switzerland on the U.S. report and other information, and on March 26, 2014, the Committee adopted its 11-page report (Concluding observations on the fourth report of the United States of America) that was very critical of the U.S. compliance with the ICCPR.[4]

These subjects will be discussed in subsequent posts.

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[1] The nation states creating and joining this treaty chose to not grant the Committee the power to order the states to do anything. Instead, the Committee only may make recommendations as observations.

[2] The report was supplemented the same date by the 85-page U.S. Common Core Document that contained general information (U.S. demographic, economic, social and cultural characteristics) and legal information (U.S. constitutional, political and legal structure; general framework for the protection and promotion of human rights; and information on non-discrimination and equality and effective remedies).

The U.S.’ fourth periodic report and Common Core Document were preceded by the first U.S. report to the Committee on July 29, 1994 (with the Committee’s concluding observations on October 3, 1995) and the U.S.’ combined second and third reports on November 28, 2005 (with the Committee’s concluding observations on September 15 and December 18, 2006).

[3] The civil society organizations submitted to the Committee an additional 41 reports before the March 2014 Committee session.

[4] The Committee’s procedure and report are similar to, but separate from, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of U.S. human rights that is conducted by a separate U.N. organization, the Human Rights Council, as discussed in a prior post.