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Key Issues in Hayden v. Pataki

This paper discusses the key issues in Hayden v. Pataki, a Second Circuit class action lawsuit challenging New York’s felony disenfranchisement law.

Published: July 10, 2009
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  Key Issues in

Hayden v. Pataki, 449 F.3d 305 (2d Cir. 2006)

Q.  What is Hayden v. Pataki about?

In 2003, plaintiffs filed a class action chal­lenge to New York’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment law arguing that New York’s law, which denies the right to vote to people in prison and parole,[1] viol­ated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the Four­teenth and Fifteenth Amend­ments because it disen­fran­chised African Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos at a higher rate than whites.  In June 2005, the case was argued before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc.  On May 4, 2006, the court ruled 8 to 5 that plaintiffs could not chal­lenge New York’s law under the VRA or the Consti­tu­tion.[2]

Q.  What does Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act provide?

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act provides that “[n]o voting qual­i­fic­a­tion or prerequis­ite to voting or stand­ard, prac­tice, or proced­ure shall be imposed or applied by any State . . . in a manner which results in a denial or abridge­ment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”[3] 

Q.  How did the Second Circuit rule on plaintiffs’ VRA claim?

Major­ity:  Eight judges determ­ined that plaintiffs could not chal­lenge New York’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment law under the VRA.  The major­ity concluded that Section 2 is ambigu­ous, and it is unclear on its face whether it applies to felony disen­fran­chise­ment laws.[4]  As a result, the major­ity turned to second­ary sources, includ­ing state­ments in the House and Senate Judi­ciary Commit­tee Reports and by indi­vidual Senat­ors on the Senate floor, to determ­ine Congress’ intent when it draf­ted Section 2.  The major­ity then concluded that Congress did not intend for the VRA to apply to felony disen­fran­chise­ment laws.[5]

Dissent:  Five judges dissen­ted, conclud­ing that Section 2 of the VRA does apply to New York’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment law.  The dissent argued New York’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment law was clearly a “voting qual­i­fic­a­tion” under the plain language of Section 2.  The dissent then concluded that because the stat­utory language is clear, there was no reason for the major­ity to turn to the legis­lat­ive history.  The dissent also argued that the legis­lat­ive history relied on by the major­ity, namely commit­tee reports from another section of the VRA and indi­vidual floor state­ments, was inap­plic­able and unper­suas­ive.[6] 

Judge Sonia Soto­mayor joined the dissent and wrote a brief separ­ate opin­ion emphas­iz­ing that   the VRA applies to all “voting qual­i­fic­a­tions” and a felony convic­tion is clearly a voting qual­i­fic­a­tion under New York’s elec­tion law.[7]  Judge Soto­mayor concluded, “[t]he duty of a judge is to follow the law, not to ques­tion its plain terms.”[8] 

Q:  How did the court rule on plaintiffs’ Consti­tu­tional claims?

Major­ity:  Because the Supreme Court ruled in Richard­son v. Ramirez that Section 2 of the Four­teenth Amend­ment exemp­ted felony disen­fran­chise­ment laws from Section 1's protec­tions,[9] the major­ity concluded that felony disen­fran­chise­ment laws are presumptively consti­tu­tional.[10] 

Dissent:  Rely­ing on the Supreme Court’s conclu­sion that Section 2 of the Four­teenth Amend­ment “was not designed to permit that purpose­ful racial discrim­in­a­tion attend­ing the enact­ment and oper­a­tion” of felony disen­fran­chise­ment laws, the dissent argued that plaintiffs should have been allowed to present evid­ence that New York’s law inten­tion­ally discrim­in­ated on the basis of race.[11]  The dissent also criti­cized the major­ity for ignor­ing plaintiffs’ claim under the Fifteenth Amend­ment which prohib­its racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting.[12] 

Q:  Have other courts ruled on this issue??

Both the Ninth Circuit and the Elev­enth Circuit have ruled on similar chal­lenges.  In Farrakhan v. Gregoire, the Ninth Circuit has found that plaintiffs can chal­lenge felony disen­fran­chise­ment laws under the VRA.[13]  In John­son v. Bush, the Elev­enth Circuit rejec­ted the claim.[14]    

[1] New York Elec­tion Law § 5–106(2) provides:  “[n]o person who has been convicted of a felony pursu­ant to the laws of the state, shall have the right to register for or vote at any elec­tion unless he shall have been pardoned or restored to the rights of citizen­ship by the governor, or his maximum sentence of impris­on­ment has expired, or he has been discharged from parole.”

[2] For a complete descrip­tion of the case and to access all briefs and other court filings, see http://www.bren­nan­cen­­id­ated_in_2nd_circuit/. 

[3] 42 U.S.C. § 1973(a) (2006).

[4] Hayden v. Pataki, 449 F.3d 305, 314–15 (2d Cir. 2006).  Hayden was consol­id­ated with Muntaqim v. Coombe, another chal­lenge to New York’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment law.

[5] Hayden, 449 F.3d at 318.

[6] Id. at 352–353 (Parker, J. dissent­ing)

[7] Id. at 368 (Soto­mayor, J. dissent­ing).

[8] Id.

[9] Richard­son v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974).  Section 2 of the Four­teenth Amend­ment provides that “when the right to vote at any [federal] elec­tion . . . is denied to any of the male inhab­it­ants of [the] State . . . or in any way abridged, except for parti­cip­a­tion in rebel­lion, or other crime, the basis of repres­ent­a­tion therein shall be reduced.”  U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 2.

[10] Hayden, 449 F.3d at 316, 334.

[11] Id. at 349–50 (quot­ing Hunter v. Under­wood, 471 U.S. 222, 233 (1985)).

[12] Id. at 350–352; see also U.S. Const. amend. XV, § 1.

[13] Farrakhan v. Wash­ing­ton, 338 F.3d 1009 (9th Cir. 2003).  For a complete descrip­tion of the case and links to all briefs and other court filings, see http://www.bren­nan­cen­

[14] John­son v. Bush, 405 F.3d 1214 (11th Cir. 2005).  For a complete descrip­tion of the case and links to all briefs and other court filings, see http://www.bren­nan­cen­­son_v_bush/