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The Supreme Court of Canada granted penitentiary inmates the right to vote in federal elections yesterday -- then took Parliament to task for wrongheadedly depriving citizens of a vital democratic right.

In a 5-4 ruling that sizzles with indignation, the court said that punishing prisoners by arbitrarily removing their right to vote is much more likely to undermine their respect for democracy than to enhance it.

"The idea that certain classes of people are not morally fit or morally worthy to vote and to participate in the law-making process is ancient and obsolete," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said.

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"The legitimacy of the law and the obligation to obey the law flows directly from the right of every citizen to vote." Describing government arguments as a "facade of rhetoric," she dismissed the law as a retrograde notion that strikes at the dignity of inmates -- regardless of whether they are killers or non-violent social outcasts.

The appellant, Richard Sauve, is on parole after serving about 20 years of a life sentence for the first-degree murder of an Ontario biker-gang member.

"I'm thrilled," Mr. Sauve said yesterday.

"The government looked at this as a moral issue, as if prisoners voting would somehow diminish everyone else's vote. They should have looked at helping people become more responsible citizens."

Lawyer Alan Manson, who represented two prisoner groups in the case, said the ruling clearly extends to the few provinces that prohibit inmates from voting in provincial elections.

"This ruling ensures that all prisoners can vote in any election in Canada," Prof. Manson of Queen's University said. "I don't have any doubt about it."

About 30,000 inmates are in federal and provincial institutions, many of the facilities clustered in regions such as Kingston and Edmonton.

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An Alliance Party critic of the Solicitor-General's Department said yesterday that the Supreme Court ruling sets the stage for prisoners to swing the results of elections in close ridings.

"This is judge-made law at its worst," MP Randy White said.

Chief Justice McLachlin said the government lacked credible theory and empirical evidence to support its view that disenfranchisement is a reasonable and effective form of punishment.

Removing the right to vote in hopes of enhancing respect for the law is "exactly backwards," she said.

Chief Justice McLachlin also slammed the government for substituting vague philosophical musings for coherent argument.

"The government cannot use lofty objectives to shield legislation from Charter scrutiny. As to a legitimate penal purpose, neither the record nor common sense supports the claim that disenfranchisement deters crime or rehabilitates criminals."

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The majority chastised Parliament for abusing a traditionally respectful "dialogue" it has enjoyed with the court and retooling the voting prohibition against inmates in the hope of slipping it past the court.

"The healthy and important promotion of a dialogue between the legislature and the courts should not be debased to a rule of, 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," Chief Justice McLachlin said on behalf of Mr. Justice Frank Iacobucci, Mr. Justice Ian Binnie, Madam Justice Louise Arbour and Mr. Justice Louis LeBel.

Writing for the dissenting side, Mr. Justice Charles Gonthier said it was unrealistic to expect the government to provide "scientific" proof of its philosophical belief that denying prisoners the right to vote is beneficial to society.

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