SEATTLE — Felons who serve their full prison terms still must pay their court-ordered legal fines before voting again, a divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a case watched closely by national voting rights advocates, three ex-convicts claimed Washington's felon-voting restrictions unconstitutionally denied voting rights based on a person's wealth.
But in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court said the law did not illegally discriminate against poor felons who have trouble paying their legal bills.
Justices also rejected an analogy to illegal poll taxes, saying the felons gave up their constitutionally protected right to vote when they committed crimes.
Under the law upheld Thursday, Washington felons must complete their entire sentence — including payment of all court costs, fees, and restitution — before their voting rights may be restored.
It's not clear how many felons are currently barred from voting just because of unpaid fines. State figures from 2002 show more than 46,000 people were subject to the rule.
The law doesn't violate the state constitution's fair treatment provisions because the policy applies to all felons regardless of their crime, the court said.
Even though a poor felon is affected more harshly than an ex-convict with money, that's not enough to violate the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause, Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote for the majority.
State Attorney General Rob McKenna and Secretary of State Sam Reed applauded the ruling, which overturned a decision from King County Superior Court.
"It is the Legislature's place, not the court's, to decide whether or not to change state law," said Reed, the state's top election official.
The court's minority, however, said the policy is unconstitutional because it allows felons to complete their sentences faster — and get their voting rights back sooner — if they have money.
"The state may not discriminate against impoverished felons by setting payment of (fees) in the way of regaining voting rights," Chief Justice Gerry Alexander wrote for the dissent.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued on behalf of the three plaintiffs, criticized the Supreme Court's ruling. The group now hopes the Democratic-controlled state Legislature will overturn the fine-payment rule, spokesman Doug Honig said.
—The Associated Press