Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Supreme Court yesterday rejected a challenge to Florida’s ban on voting rights for felons, letting stand a 137-year-old law that applies to both inmates and ex-convicts.

The justices offered no comment in deciding not to review the ban, similar versions of which apply in every state, except Maine and Vermont.

In a busy day for the court, the justices also said they will not review a North Carolina case involving the constitutionality of an “In God We Trust” engraving on a government building.

The rejection lets stand a lower court ruling to permit the engraving for “historical” reasons, and comes almost five months after the justices split over the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on government property.

In separate 5-4 rulings in June, the justices upheld the legality of such displays, but said they should be scrutinized case by case to prevent governmental promotion of religion. At the time, the court ruled that a 6-foot-tall monument at the Texas Capitol was permissible because of its historical context, but that Commandment postings at two Kentucky courthouses were not because their purpose was to “advance religion.”

In other Supreme Court action yesterday:

• The justices ruled 6-2 in a Maryland case that parents seeking changes to their child’s special-education program must prove during a hearing before an administrative law judge that the program is inadequate. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. recused himself from the ruling.

• The justices dismissed another Maryland case on which they had heard arguments earlier this month involving the question of how far police can go to get a suspect to talk with them. The case involved a 17-year-old murder suspect who demanded to see a lawyer, then spoke with police anyway. A lower court ruling stands, saying the statements were illegitimate.

• The justices agreed to review a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that lifted Pennsylvania’s ban on allowing prison inmates access to certain newspapers, magazines and personal photographs. Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. was a judge in the case when it went through the appeals court. He dissented at the time, saying the ban was necessary.

The high court’s refusal to hear the Florida voting rights case, meanwhile, was met with dismay by lawyers representing ex-convicts seeking the right to vote — specifically those who have served their time and been released from jail.

“This is a sad day for our democracy,” said Catherine Weiss, associate counsel for New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, the lead counsel in the case. “The court has not only missed an opportunity to right a great historic injustice, it has shut the courthouse door in the face of hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised citizens.”

The Brennan Center said the Florida law bars more than 600,000 people from voting.

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