Darn those federal judges. Just as Gov. Rick Scott plans to spend April launching his U.S. Senate campaign, the courts are requiring that the governor and Cabinet create a constitutional plan before the end of the month for restoring the voting rights of felons. If the governor hadn’t so cavalierly ignored U.S. District Judge Mark Walker’s earlier order, he wouldn’t be in this pickle and hundreds of thousands of Floridians would be looking forward to being participants again in democracy.
Perhaps the judge finally has the attention of the governor, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. They all but ignored Walker’s February ruling declaring unconstitutional the state’s arbitrary system of restoring voting rights to a tiny number of felons each year and ordering them to create a new system. Last week, the judge issued a permanent injunction against using the current process and ordered the governor and Cabinet to propose a fairer one by April 26. The clock is again ticking, and the governor’s spokesman still is whining about judicial interference.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The judge makes clear (again) in his latest order that the court "is not the Vote-Restoration Czar. It does not pick and choose who may receive the right to vote and who may not.’’ That is the responsibility of Florida’s elected leaders, and it is their obligation to create a legal process for restoring the rights of felons. The governor and Cabinet haven’t just failed. They have willfully refused.
The clemency system Florida has used for decades is an arbitrary relic of the past, traced all the way back to the post-Civil War state constitution and the Jim Crow era of multiple racist efforts to discriminate against black former slaves. Under Scott, the process forced felons to wait at least five years after completing their sentences to apply to have their rights restored to the governor and Cabinet sitting as the clemency board. The governor is required to be on the prevailing side, and petitions are considered just four times a year. The wait can take untold years and there is a backlog of thousands of cases. No wonder Walker previously found such an arbitrary system with "mythical’’ standards violates the First Amendment rights of free association and free expression.
While leaving it to the governor and Cabinet to create a constitutional system for restoring the voting rights of felons, the judge offers some constructive direction. He requires that a new system be based on specific, neutral criteria and provide specific time constraints. He suggests that no felon’s wait for the restoration of rights stretch beyond one election cycle, or four years. And he warns that the earlier suggestion by the governor and Cabinet that perhaps Florida should not have any process for restoring the right to vote would be illegal.
About 1.5 million Floridians who are felons are prohibited from voting, nearly a quarter of all Americans who find themselves in that situation. Floridians know that’s fundamentally unfair. A citizens’ initiative has placed a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would require the automatic restoration of voting rights for most felons after they have completed their sentences, and opinion polls show most voters support it. It’s the elected leaders of this state who are clinging to the past and an unconstitutional system, not the voters.
A federal judge has given the governor and the Cabinet one last chance to finally step out of the Jim Crow era. They can create a fairer system for the restoration of voting rights for felons, or they can continue to arrogantly defy the courts and complain about activist judges. History tells us the second course tends not to work and leaves a permanent stain on the records of politicians who refuse to abandon the discriminatory practices of the past.