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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.

Court Documents

Trial Court

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).