7th Circuit prohibits sex offender from voting at local high school

In a decision handed down one day before Indiana’s 2018 primary election, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found a rational relationship between an Indiana statute prohibiting sex offenders from entering school property and the state’s interest in protecting children. The court ruled the state does not violate a convicted sex offender’s voting rights by prohibiting him from voting at a polling place located in a high school, and instead requiring him to vote via one of three alternatives.

In Brian Valenti v. Connie Lawson, et al., 17-3207, Valenti was convicted in 1993 of a lewd or lascivious act with a child under 14 in California and served 10 years in prison. Valenti later moved to Indiana, where he is considered a serious sex offender who is prohibited from knowingly or intentionally entering school property pursuant to Indiana Code section 35-42-4-14(b).

That prohibition poses a problem for Valenti on election days, because his neighborhood polling location is in the Blackford County High School gym. Instead of voting in the high school gym, state law allows Valenti to vote via absentee ballot, at the county courthouse, or at the local civic center.

Despite those options, Valenti sued the state under the First and 14th Amendments, arguing the prohibition on his entering the high school gym violates his right to vote. Valenti’s as-applied challenge sought declaratory and injunctive relief, but the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana granted summary judgment to the state after finding the state’s interest in protecting children from serious sex offenders outweighed the “minimal burden” imposed on Valenti. The court relied on the balancing test laid out in Burdick v. Takushi, 504 U.S. 428, 112 S. Ct. 2059, 119 L.Ed. 2d 245 (1992) to reach that decision.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the grant of summary judgment to the state on Monday, though Senior Judge J. Phil Gilbert — sitting by designation from the Southern District of Illinois — said the district court’s reasoning was wrong. Gilbert pointed to Indiana’s practice of allowing felons to vote once they have been released from prison, but with some restrictions such as those imposed on sex offenders such as Valenti.

“Accordingly, Valenti only has a statutory right to vote here, not a constitutional right,” Gilbert wrote. “And since the Indiana statute does not infringe on any fundamental right or suspect class, it only requires rational basis review — not something higher, like the constitutional balancing test seen in Burdick.”

The 7th Circuit then found that the restriction placed on Valenti survives rational basis review because Indiana’s interest in keeping serious sex offenders away from schools is rationally related to I.C. 35-42-4-14(b).

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