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Columbia County Observer

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Federal Judge Enjoins Gov Scott From Enforcing FL's Unconstitutional Vote-Restoration Scheme

TALLAHASSEE, FL – Today, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker issued a permanent injunction that requires Governor Scott and Florida’s Executive Clemency Board to establish a new voting rights restoration process for former felons by April 26, 2018.

The Court did not order the automatic restoration of voting rights for any former felons. However, Judge Walker instructed the Clemency Board to establish “specific and neutral criteria to direct vote-restoration decisions,” and “meaningful, specific, and expeditious time constraints” for the voting rights restoration process. Judge Walker's opinion suggested no one should have to wait more than an election cycle for a decision on their application. The Court stated this relief “is appropriate to ensure that Florida’s vote-restoration scheme is no longer based on unfettered discretion.”

BLinks:
Today's Order
Today's Judgment
The Original Complaint
ackground

Florida is one of four states that deny the right to vote to all former felons until they petition for rights restoration. This process is the target of the lawsuit, Hand v. Scott.

Almost 1.5 million Floridians are currently disenfranchised after completing their sentences, including men and women of all different political parties, races, ethnicities, ages, from cities and rural areas, as well as veterans, small business owners and others.

Fair Elections Legal Network and the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, counsel for the plaintiffs in Hand v. Scott, filed the lawsuit in March 2017. In February 2018, Judge Walker ruled Florida’s arbitrary voting rights restoration process for persons with felony convictions violates the 1st and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Florida is still permitted to deny the right to vote to persons with felony convictions, and felons still cannot register or vote until that right is restored.

FL Constitution, Statutes, Executive Clemency Rules
Violate the United States Constitution

Judge Walker's Order directed the Clerk to enter judgment stating:

"FLA. CONST. art. VI, § 4(a), FLA. CONST. art. IV § 8, FLA. STAT. § 97.041(2)(b), FLA. STAT. § 944.292(1), and the Florida Rules of Executive Clemency, violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution to the extent these provisions provide the Executive Clemency Board unfettered discretion to grant or deny restoration of voting rights to persons with felony convictions, and violate the First Amendment to the extent these provisions lack any time constraints for processing and making final decisions. This DECLARATORY JUDGMENT applies only to the right to vote, not to any other civil right. It does not apply to any other type of executive clemency in Florida.”

Judge Walkers' Order continued:

“Defendants are PERMANENTLY ENJOINED from enforcing the current unconstitutional vote-restoration scheme. Defendants are also PERMANENTLY ENJOINED from ending all vote-restoration processes. On or before April 26, 2018, Defendants shall promulgate specific and neutral criteria to direct vote-restoration decisions in accordance with this Order. On or before April 26, 2018, Defendants shall also promulgate meaningful, specific, and expeditious time constraints in accordance with this Order. Defendants shall file with this Court its modified rules on or before April 26, 2018.”

Freedom of Expression Violated
"Hundreds of Thousands" Impacted

In the middle of his 21 page decision, Judge Walker wrote:

"There is little doubt that the Board possesses broad, censorial power to prohibit hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible voters from freely associating with political parties or freely expressing themselves through voting. And there are problems of potential abuse—especially when members of the Board, who are elected on a statewide basis and who may be running for re-election or another office, have a personal stake in shaping the electorate to their perceived benefit. “Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people.” Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310, 339 (2010). Florida’s current scheme inverts that important, democratic mechanism. It cannot do so anymore."

Fair Elections Legal Network Comments

"Today the Court has ordered Defendants to make meaningful changes to Florida's voting rights restoration scheme that will eliminate the risk of arbitrary and discriminatory decision-making and not merely serve as smoke screens," said Jon Sherman, Senior Counsel at the Fair Elections Legal Network. "This is a victory for the principle that the right to vote cannot be subjected to officials’ gut instincts and whims. We are also heartened that the Court prevented Florida from following through on its threat to become the only state in the nation with an irrevocable lifetime ban on voting for all former felons—what the Court called ‘the ultimate arbitrary act.'" 

Cohen Milstein Weighs In

Cohen Milstein Partner Ted Leopold: “We are extremely pleased with Judge Walker’s ruling. This ruling continues to shed sunlight on what we as citizens hold so precious in our democracy, the right of all citizens to exercise their right to vote."

Governor Scott Weighs In

Governor Scott weighed in through his Director of Communications, John Tupps: “We will review the court’s ruling. Officials elected by Floridians, not judges, have the authority to determine Florida’s clemency process for convicted felons. This is outlined in Florida’s Constitution and has been in place for more than a century and under multiple gubernatorial administrations."

*Update: Governor Scott Weighs In

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