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July 25, 2021

"The Boundary Problem of Rights Restoration"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Joshua Feinzig now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

By conditioning restoration of felons’ political rights on the repayment of legal financial obligations, states have kept millions of potential voters from participating politically — profoundly altering the shape of the American electorate. Courts have universally upheld the practice by treating the conferral of political rights to nonmembers of the political community as an exercise of legislative grace subject to few constraints, while critics argue that the practice conditions political participation on wealth status and is therefore subject to heightened review.

This Essay traces the disagreement back to a first-order question that has gone overlooked by both sides: how should the juridical status of a disenfranchised citizen’s “lost” rights be understood?  The conventional position, which I call “depoliticization,” imagines that a sentence of disenfranchisement casts a citizen outside the democratic community, thereby voiding all prospective constitutional interests predicated on political membership. However, disenfranchisement is better characterized as the subordination — not the wholesale elimination — of a citizen’s constitutional interests in voting or otherwise participating politically, just as incarceration suppresses but does not eliminate a person’s constitutional interest in physical liberty.  It follows that rights restoration is not the conferral of a new statutory benefit to a political outsider, as courts have assumed, but instead marks the endpoint of state-sustained subordination.

Redescribing the disenfranchisement-to-restoration process in this way aligns with the Richardson Court’s reading of Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, resolves a number of doctrinal contradictions, and — most critically for future litigation challenges — sharpens the constitutional symmetry between fee-based restoration and paradigmatic forms of wealth discrimination like poll taxes and debtors’ prisons.  By framing re-enfranchisement as a constitutional default and drawing attention to disenfranchised citizens’ enduring claim to political presence, this account may also be of use in popular restoration efforts currently underway outside the courts.

July 25, 2021 at 09:53 AM | Permalink

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