Florida’s system for barring felons from voting is unconstitutional, federal court rules
Florida’s system of barring felons from voting unless they receive executive clemency is unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.
In a sharply worded ruling, Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida said a clemency board with “unfettered discretion in restoring voting rights” violates the 1st and 14th Amendments.
Walker blasted Florida’s process at length, writing that it makes felons “kowtow” to a board that can accept or deny their application for any reason.
“A person convicted of a crime may have long ago exited the prison cell and completed probation. Her voting rights, however, remain locked in a dark crypt,” Walker wrote in the ruling released Thursday. “Only the state has the key — but the state has swallowed it. Only when the state has digested and passed that key in the unforeseeable future, maybe in five years, maybe in 50 … does the state, in an ‘act of mercy’ unlock the former felon’s voting rights from its hiding place.”
The ruling throws into limbo the status of 1.5 million ex-felons eligible to seek the restoration of their rights. The judge required the state and the nine ex-convicts who brought the lawsuit to file motions by Feb. 12 on how to fix the rights restoration system.
The office of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said he was reviewing the ruling but would “continue to defend this process in the court.”
“The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons’ rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors,” Scott spokesman John Tupps wrote in an email. “The governor believes that convicted felons should show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities.”
The Fair Elections Legal Network, a national voting rights group that filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of nine ex-felons seeking to vote, hailed the ruling.
“Today, a federal court said what so many Floridians have known for so long — that the state’s arbitrary restoration process, which forces former felons to beg for their right to vote, violates the oldest and most basic principles of our democracy,” said Jon Sherman, senior counsel for FELN.
Florida is one of a handful of states where felons’ voting rights aren’t automatically restored after they serve their sentence.
Felons must apply to the state clemency board, made up of Scott and Florida Cabinet members — Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
The order comes as the movement to quash Florida’s rights restoration system gains momentum. Voters’ rights groups gathered enough petitions to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would automatically restore voting rights to felons after they complete their sentences. If 60% of voters approve the measure, it would become law.
“It certainly gives some ammunition to efforts to amend the constitution,” said Darryl Paulson, a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation and University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor who favors the amendment. “These legal issues have existed in Florida for a long time. A remedy needs to be reached, and the remedy put forward by the restoration group may muster additional support.”
But Paulson also warned that the GOP-controlled Legislature “may try to do a quick patch” to fix the rights restoration process.
“[The Legislature] is going to have to consider all issues raised as to why Florida is so far out of the mainstream out of all 50 states,” Paulson said.
Rohrer writes for the Orlando Sentinel.
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