Federal lawsuit challenges 'arbitrary' Florida clemency system
A federal lawsuit filed Monday against Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected Cabinet members seeks to end Florida's "unconstitutionally arbitrary" system for restoring the civil rights of convicted felons.
A voting rights group, the Fair Elections Legal Network, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee on behalf of seven felons. The lawsuit says 1.6 million Floridians are currently disenfranchised, the most of any state, and that more than 10,000 are awaiting public hearings on their restoration applications.
Under the state's arcane and secretive clemency process, most documents are exempt from disclosure and Scott and his colleagues can deny a clemency petition without giving an explanation, which is what happened to Orville (Lee) Wollard, who's serving a 20-year sentence in state prison for firing a warning shot in a family dispute in which no one was injured.
"Florida's arbitrary rights restoration process violates the U.S. Constitution and hinders former felons from truly re-entering society," Fair Elections said in a news release.
Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who took office in 2011, supported a policy shift that requires most convicted felons to wait for five years after leaving prison before they can petition the state to regain the right to vote, serve on a jury or run for public office. That change was also supported by the two other Cabinet members, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. All four officials will be termed out of office in 2018.
The lawsuit alleges that since 2011, only 2,488 applications for restoration of civil rights have been granted by Scott and the Cabinet, who meet four times a year as the state clemency board. That number compares to 155,315 approvals during the four-year term of former Gov. Charlie Crist and 73,508 during the eight years Jeb Bush was governor.