updated 11/8/2004 1:18:16 PM ET 2004-11-08T18:18:16

The Supreme Court declined Monday to hear an appeal from Washington state to stop minority felons from seeking the right to vote.

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Justices left intact a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that allows six current and former inmates to challenge as racially discriminatory a Washington state law stripping them of their right to vote. The inmates now can proceed to trial.

The high court, however, also let stand a 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the opposite direction. That lower court rejected an appeal from convicted New York felon Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, saying states should have the discretion to restrict voting rights unless Congress specifically states otherwise.

The Washington case has significant political implications, particularly given the close votes in the last two presidential elections. A victory for inmates at the Washington trial could stir lawsuits in the 47 other states — all except Maine and Vermont — that prohibit imprisoned felons from voting.

A similar lawsuit by 600,000 felons in Florida is pending in federal court there. That case, or another one, could give the Supreme Court another opportunity to clear up confusion.

The Washington inmates — four blacks, one American Indian and one Hispanic — filed the lawsuit in 1996, saying the state law violates the federal Voting Rights Act by denying them equal access to the polls. Minorities are particularly hurt because they are overrepresented in the prison community, they said.

The state of Washington countered that Congress never intended to protect convicted felons when it passed the Voting Rights Act. Also, if minorities are disproportionately hurt, that is not the fault of the state law but other factors such as unfair sentencing practices, the state’s legal filings say.

In its ruling last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit didn’t side with the inmates, but agreed that their claims of bias deserve a full airing in court.

It noted that blacks make up about 3 percent of the state population but account for 37 percent of the “persistent offender” sentences handed down.

Nationwide, about 4.7 million people are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., a number that could easily tip the balance in a close race. Last week, President Bush topped Sen. John Kerry by about 3.5 million votes.

Of those disenfranchised because of convictions, about 1.4 million are black men.

The cases are Locke v. Farrakhan, 03-1597, and Muntaqim v. Coombe, 04-175.

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