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Scott v. Bowen

The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief in California’s First District Court of Appeal supporting the voting rights of people who have been released from prison and are living in their community, but remain under local criminal justice supervision.

Published: August 5, 2015

In August 2015, Cali­for­nia Secret­ary of State Alex Padilla with­drew the state’s appeal in Scott v. Bowen, a case concern­ing the voting rights of people with crim­inal convic­tions who have been released from prison and are living in their community, but remain under local crim­inal justice super­vi­sion. The secret­ary’s decision to with­draw the state’s appeal effect­ively restores voting rights to tens of thou­sands of Cali­for­ni­ans.


In Cali­for­nia, people with felony convic­tions have their voting rights restored after the comple­tion of terms of incar­cer­a­tion and parole. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown spear­headed an effort to alle­vi­ate over­crowding in the state prison system by allow­ing people convicted of low-level felon­ies to be released from prison under the super­vi­sion of county proba­tion depart­ments rather than state parole agen­cies. The Realign­ment Act created two new forms of non-custodial super­vi­sion for persons convicted of less-seri­ous felon­ies.  These new forms of super­vi­sion are mandat­ory super­vi­sion (“MS”) and post-release community super­vi­sion (“PRCS”).

On Decem­ber 5, 2011, Secret­ary of State Debra Bowen issued an offi­cial memor­andum conclud­ing that MS and PRCS were “func­tion­ally equi­val­ent to parole,” and there­fore persons subject to either would be treated as though they were on parole and not allowed to register to vote in Cali­for­nia. As a result of this action, more than 60,000 Cali­for­ni­ans were disen­fran­chised in the three years that followed.

In 2014, the Amer­ican Civil Liber­ties Union of Cali­for­nia, the Lawyers’ Commit­tee for Civil Rights, and Legal Services for Pris­on­ers with Chil­dren took Bowen to court, arguing that the Secret­ary of State had uncon­sti­tu­tion­ally stripped tens of thou­sands of people of their right to vote. On May 7, 2014, Judge Evelio Grillo of the Super­ior Court of Alameda County agreed with their claims and drew a distinc­tion between the new forms of community super­vi­sion and parole, inter­pret­ing Cali­for­nia law in favor of expan­ded voting rights and demo­cracy. However, the govern­ment decided to appeal the court’s ruling, and the case went under consid­er­a­tion in Cali­for­ni­a’s First District Court of Appeal.

In Janu­ary 2015, the Bren­nan Center filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs, arguing that deny­ing people on community super­vi­sion the right to vote under­mines the legis­lat­ive goals of re-integ­ra­tion and rehab­il­it­a­tion through community involve­ment that are embod­ied in the Realign­ment Act. The brief, authored by Bren­nan Center experts along with attor­neys from Morrison & Foer­ster LLP, also conten­ded that the Secret­ary’s inter­pret­a­tion was complic­ated and confus­ing for voters and elec­tion offi­cials. Research suggests that such confu­sion can lead to de facto disen­fran­chise­ment of even eligible voters. Finally, the brief demon­strated that, as a result of the racial dispar­it­ies that plague the crim­inal justice system, the Secret­ary’s inter­pret­a­tion would have a dispro­por­tion­ate effect on the elect­oral power of racial minor­it­ies.

On August 5, 2015, Secret­ary of State Alex Padilla, who succeeded Bowen, announced that his office would drop the state’s appeal. Announced just two days before the 50th anniversary of the sign­ing of the Voting Rights Act, this decision restored the right to vote to tens of thou­sands of Cali­for­ni­ans and signaled the grow­ing national move­ment to reform felony disen­fran­chise­ment.

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Court of Appeal

Related Blogs

Cali­for­nia Changes Course and Restores Voting Rights

Related Press Releases

Secret­ary Padilla Ends Appeal of Scott v. Bowen Case, Cali­for­nia Secret­ary of State (8/4/15)

Voting Rights Restored to Thou­sands of Cali­for­ni­ans, ACLU of North­ern Cali­for­nia (8/4/15)

Related Cover­age

Cali­for­nia could allow more felons to vote, in major shift, Paige St. John, L.A. Times (August 4, 2015).