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Federal Judge Declares Florida’s Arbitrary and Governor-Controlled Method of Restoring Felons’ Voting Rights Unconstitutional

| February 1, 2018

It shouldn't be a life sentence, unless it is: a federal judge's decision seeks to level the balance against felons' rights. (Josh Rushing)

It shouldn’t be a life sentence, unless it is: a federal judge’s decision seeks to level the balance against felons’ rights. (Josh Rushing)

Describing an arbitrary system that gives “unfettered discretion” to the governor and state Cabinet members, a federal judge Thursday ruled that Florida’s process for restoring the voting rights of ex-felons is unconstitutional.

“Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in a 43-page ruling. “To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration. Until that moment (if it ever comes), these citizens cannot legally vote for presidents, governors, senators, representatives, mayors, or school-board members.”

Walker’s ruling, in a case filed last year by the voting-rights group Fair Elections Legal Network, was a bombshell in an issue that has long been controversial in Florida. It also comes just months before voters will cast ballots on a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the voting rights of most felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution.

The judge, who was appointed to the bench by President Obama in 2012 and confirmed in a 94-0 vote of the Senate, did not decide how the rights-restoration process should change and gave the plaintiffs and the state until Feb. 12 to file briefs on the issue.

But Gov. Rick Scott’s office issued a statement late Thursday indicating it will continue a legal battle over the issue. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis serve as the state’s clemency board that determines whether felons’ rights should be restored.

“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,” John Tupps, a Scott spokesman, said in the statement. “The process is outlined in Florida’s Constitution, and today’s ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court.

“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. While we are reviewing today’s ruling, we will continue to defend this process in the court.”

“To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority.”

Critics of the rights-restoration process have compared it to post-Civil War Jim Crow policies designed to keep blacks from casting ballots. Under the state’s system, ex-felons must wait five or seven years after finishing their sentences — including probation, parole and fines — before they can apply to have their rights restored, according to Walker’s ruling.

An application, however, does not guarantee that the clemency board will agree to restore voting rights. In his ruling, Walker focused heavily on what he saw as the arbitrariness of the system, which he ruled violated First Amendment rights and equal-protection rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

“Here, plaintiffs’ protected expressive and associational activities are at risk of viewpoint discrimination because the (clemency) board may defer restoration of rights for years — or forever,” Walker wrote. “Defendants (the state) cannot — whether arbitrarily or motivated by political, racial, or religious bias — kick the can down the road for so long that they violate former felons’ rights to free association and free expression without offending the Constitution.”

Jon Sherman, senior counsel at Fair Elections Legal Network, said in a prepared statement that the ruling “held in no uncertain terms that a state cannot subject U.S. citizens’ voting rights to the limitless power of government officials.”

“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,” Sherman said.

The ruling came after state elections officials last month formally placed on the November ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would lead to automatic restoration of rights for ex-felons, though the amendment would not apply to murderers and sex offenders. The initiative has been spearheaded by the group Floridians for a Fair Democracy.

–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

Hand v. Rick Scott (2018)

21 Responses for “Federal Judge Declares Florida’s Arbitrary and Governor-Controlled Method of Restoring Felons’ Voting Rights Unconstitutional”

  1. Pogo says:

    @ The two faced tin god named scott

    “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…”

    scott has never passed his own test. Hey tricky ricky:

    20 Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
    – Isaiah 5:20-21 KJV

  2. Mark says:

    If losing your voting rights is part of the punishment then so be it.

  3. Dave says:

    Do the crime, Pay the time, then have your rights restored, that sounds like a fair deal to me. This is a no brainer, Restore all righrs once they serve the sentence they were given

  4. Anonymous says:

    And you think our Governor and Cabinet wouldn’t be smart enough to have known this? Automatic restoration of voting rights after release from prison is misleading and a joke–people’s lives are being jerked around and as a result people are being mistreated, labeled and denied their right to vote, and that is so wrong. A felon should not have to carry the FELON label the rest of their life when crimes as simple as throwing a rock, voting when you have the FELON label or recording a verbal conversation without consent can be a felon. The only felons that should carry a label are those that have murdered, raped and committed crimes of that level. There are many people that haven’t been caught doing wrong deeds, just because they haven’t been caught doesn’t mean they are not a felon. This felon label closes doors of opportunities for men and women to be able to lead productive stable lives and live life free of crime. Once a person does the time and paid the price for their wrong doing they should be able to vote and have a normal life. Anyone with half a brain should be able to see the current practice of being wrong. Our Governor himself should have the FELON label look at how he got his millions and plead the 5th when he got caught. It is not even right that this cabinet should have such authority. Pam Bondi got away with not investigation Trump University when she was given a $25k campaign donation by Trump, she should be a felon. There is a lot in this state that is so backwards and corrupt–Florida didn’t get the reputation for being one of the most corrupt states in the nation for no reason. The Federal Courts need to do more to clean up this state and stop the corruption locally, and statewide. Discriminating against a felon is like discrimination against someone because they are of color. Just because more than one Governor has done it doesn’t make it right. The fact is now, this is on Governor Scott’s shoulders and it is up to him to do something about it to make it right! Let’s see if he gets to work and does just that, or if he turns his head this this like he does everything else and uses his position to campaign for another office.

  5. ConstantlyAmazed says:

    Give me a break, we talk about the CONVICTED FELONS like they have been WRONGED by society, when they have demonstrated in most cases VIOLENTLY & DEADLY as well as REPEATEDLY they REFUSED to be productive, assets to the community. They argue that “ THEY SERVED THEIR TIME” , served their time like its an accomplishment.

    Allowing FELONS to vote for lawmakers when they have proved they cannot follow the law in the first place is INSANE.

  6. mark101 says:

    Lets say, a person can kill someone gets time, gets out early on good behavior and now they can vote again. I say BS. First the courts need to decide what felonies are allowable to allow a person to have their voting rights restored.

  7. Um says:

    Welcome to Florida – where anyone can vote, as long as they vote conservative, republican, against gays, blacks and for the private prison system.

  8. knightwatch says:

    To all…I believe the petition to get restoration of felon’s voting rights on the Nov. ballot excludes murderers and pedophiles. Restoring voter rights is the right thing to do. If you did the time and completed all other requirements of your sentence, in the eyes of the law you are as free and law-abiding as any other citizen. You should get to vote just as any other citizen.

    Like someone said above, it’s a no-brainer.

  9. Sherry says:

    Please, before commenting and continuing to make complete “fools” of yourselves . . . read the entire article:

    “placed on the November ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would lead to automatic restoration of rights for ex-felons, though the amendment would NOT apply to murderers and sex offenders”.

    Requiring that offenders go before a completely “subjective and arbitrary” panel to beg to have their voting rights restored is nothing short of horrifically unjust! The law should apply EQUALLY across the board.

    Again, remember Florida is one of only 10 states that does not retore voting rights to felons. Florida. . . welcome to the 1940’s!


  10. Layla says:

    I agree with the federal court on this one. There has to be a lasting penalty for committing a crime. What next? Pay them to go straight?

  11. Outsider says:

    Ah, yes the Democratic Party has to import voters and ply the cell blocks to get people to vote for them. There is no level they won’t stoop to to keep power. Of course, if they chose to actually represent hard working Americans, they might actually have a shot.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Those that commit misdemeanor crimes can vote from jail even though they haven’t finished paying the consequences for their violations so how is that not discrimination from those who are serving time for felony charges? There is not one being on this planet that has not broken a law—some just got caught. So for those to stick their nose in the air and act like this is a bad thing, go look in the mirror. The only crimes that should impose labels are those who have killed or sexually assaulted/raped. This label game has made it next to impossible for those who have been charged with a felony to live and work in society and that should not be if they have been punished for their wrong doing. There are many felony crimes that are classified as felonies but they shouldn’t be. Our law makers need to get to work and make this a fair playing field and stop the discrimination and violations of ones rights. The rest of you that are down on felons, go look in the mirror and be honest with yourself by asking your self have you done anything in your life that you could have gotten arrested for and charged with a crime but didn’t.

  13. Sherry says:

    Read the article again. The Federal Court Judge essentially ruled that Florida’s current process that requires felons to kowtow to elected officials to beg for restoration of their voting rights is unconstitutional. The judge did NOT rule that the voting rights should be “permanently” removed.

    There is a constitutional amendment up for a vote in the next election that will hopefully bring Florida into the 21st Century on this issue. . . along with 40 other states. Those who think that 40 states laws were changed just to create more Democratic votes are showing not only their ignorance, but their prejudice as well. Even Texas and South Carolina have a path to restoration of voting rights for felons.

    Please, if all you can do is cut and paste FOX “talking points”, why bother?

  14. Layla says:

    “Ignorance and prejudice” simply because many disagree that felons should have their voting rights restored? This is not a political issue, or should not be.

    Allow people the right to disagree without attempting to debase them, please. You’ll find the conversation, as well as the people, to be much more interesting.

  15. Nancy N. says:

    The ignorance in these comments about this issue is simply staggering. But frankly not surprising.

    Over a million people in this state are disenfranchised from the right to vote because of a felony conviction. If they were all “violent, deadly people who refused to be productive members of society” (as one commenter asserts), we’d all be living in a real life version of a really bad post-apocalyptic movie. That’s 10% of the population of the entire state, for heaven’s sake! The reality is that these people are your neighbors. Many of these crimes were committed decades ago. They are people you may know and work with that you don’t even know have records.

    To those accusing the Democratic party of stooping low to get new voters, I ask…what are the GOP so afraid of that they must disenfranchise entire groups of voters to maintain their grip on power? Voter ID…felon disenfranchisement…make no mistake, it’s all the part of the same grand plan to keep the GOP in power by disenfranchising large numbers of voters who tend to skew Democratic.

    In any event, it shouldn’t matter how these people might vote. They’ve done their time and paid for their crimes. If you want to rehabilitate them and expect them to be productive members of society, you have to actually let them be members of society. And that means letting them have the same rights as everyone else – including the most basic right of citizenship in our society, the right to vote.

    This country has a very vindictive attitude towards people who make mistakes, both in criminal justice and in other areas. We demand people be rehabilitated, but then we do everything possible to kick them in the face and put obstacles in their way to achieving a productive life at every turn. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You get what you expect out of people.

  16. Sherry says:

    Those who used idiotic FOX talking points to claim that 40 states created a pathway to the restoration of voting rights merely to create more democratic voters are the ones guilty of turning this entire discussion into a personally political one.

    Actually, by definition, it is a “political” issue because our horrific governor and legislature continuously want to exercise their personal prejudicial “political” control over the disenfranchised, as well as those who have been punished by a judicial system that by many accounts does NOT mete out EQUAL Justice Under the Law.

    Continuing to savagely withhold voting rights from those who have FULLY paid for their crimes is nothing short of “cruel and unusual”, self serving, punishment.

  17. MannyHM says:

    A more important issue is felon possessing firearms which is illegal. There should be a law that allows search without warrant on those felons.

  18. Sherry says:

    @Nancy N Thank you so much for your compassionate perspective and excellent comment on this vital issue. Our community would be well served to have many more forgiving and open minded members.

    What hasn’t been discussed is the fact that some studies say that as many as 4% of felons on “death row” are actually innocent:
    Therefore, one could logically assume that in the general population of felons that percentage of “innocent” people is likely even higher. So, all of you who inhumanely want people “punished” and stripped of their rights until their dying day, you should just pray that you and yours will never ever be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Vote to open your hearts and minds as caring human beings. Vote, to forgive others who have fully paid for their actions and vote to allow them to have their rights as citizens restored.

  19. Pogo says:

    @Nancy N, Sherry, and other decent human beings posting here

    Take different measures of puritanism, chauvinism, sadism, larceny, greed, selfishness, hypocrisy, and vanity: dump that into a mixture of belligerence, ignorance, profligacy, debauchery, and treachery – you’ve cooked up a trump and/or a trump voter. It’s hard to say which is more poisonous and foul, trump – or those willing use trump as a means to an end.

  20. gmath55 says:

    I thought this wasn’t a political thing but almost every post or comment Pogo has to include Trump. We get it Pogo! You don’t like Trump.

  21. Pogo says:

    @You win a cookie otrumo fan

    Boo hoo – trumpflakes spoon it out with a shovel, and then cry and whine when it’s their turn to swallow some of their own medicine.

    Cheer up, your 401s will fit in a change purse before you know it. maga

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