A judge on Tuesday ordered Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to dismantle Florida's "fatally flawed" system of arbitrarily restoring voting rights to felons and to replace it by April 26.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee issued a permanent injunction in support of the Fair Elections Legal Network, which sued the state a year ago. The group successfully challenged the constitutionality of the state's 150-year-old voting rights restoration process for felons in the nation's third-largest state.
"This is a victory for the principle that the right to vote cannot be subjected to officials' gut instincts and whims," said Jon Sherman, senior counsel for the non-profit voting rights group. "We are also heartened that the court prevented Florida from following through on its threat to be 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.'"
A spokesman for Scott issued a statement that defended the current system.
"Officials elected by Floridians, not judges, have the authority to determine Florida's clemency process for convicted felons," spokesman John Tupps said. "This is outlined in Florida's Constitution and has been in place for more than a century and under multiple gubernatorial administrations."
Tupps said Scott — who's expected to declare his candidacy for U.S. Senate on April 9 — "believes that people who have been convicted of felony offenses, including crimes like murder, violence against children and domestic violence, should demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime while being accountable to our communities."
Scott's defense of the now-discredited system will be a campaign issue.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, tweeted: "Scott unlawfully sanctioned horrendous #JimCrow disenfranchisement in Sunshine State and now, thankfully, court ends dark chapter in FL history."
Florida is one of four states that permanently strips the right to vote from convicted felons. They cannot register to vote until their voting rights are restored.
In his ruling, Walker suggested that felons should not have to wait more than one four-year election cycle for a decision on their voting rights petitions.
Walker wrote: "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."
Florida's restoration system disproportionately affects African-Americans, who overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates.
Walker's decision is yet another legal blow to an antiquated system that permanently strips a convicted felon of the right to cast a vote in an election unless that right is restored by a vote of the governor and Cabinet, a system that Walker ruled was unconstitutionally arbitrary in a Feb. 1 decision.
The judge's action provides new momentum for a grass-roots initiative, spearheaded largely by the American Civil Liberties Union, to restore the right to vote to felons much faster.
Nearly 1 million Florida voters signed petitions in support of a November ballot initiative that will automatically restore the right to vote to most felons after they complete all terms of their sentences.
The proposal will appear on the ballot as Amendment 4, and polls show it has widespread popular support.
Walker did not order the restoration of voting rights for any felons in his order, but he directed Scott and his three fellow Republicans to establish "specific and neutral criteria to direct vote-restoration decisions," and "meaningful, specific and expeditious time constraints" for the voting rights restoration process.
In a decision laced with criticism of Scott and his colleagues for defending the current system, Walker wrote: "Defendants essentially repackage the current scheme into proposed remedies permitting the governor and the board to do, as the governor described, 'whatever we want' in denying voting rights to hundreds of thousands of their constituents."
With more than a hint of sarcasm, Walker chided Scott and his fellow defendants who "oppose any relief and claim the current scheme is all sunshine and rainbows."
An estimated 1.5 million Floridians have been permanently disenfranchised because of felony convictions.
The Florida Commission on Offender Review, which does full investigations of every felon who petitions for the restoration of civil rights, reports it has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.
A request to give the commission $500,000 more to reduce the case backlog was rejected by the Legislature in the closing days of the session earlier this month.
The voting rights restoration system that has now been fully struck down was implemented by Scott and Cabinet members, shortly after they took office seven years ago.
Scott and the Cabinet voted in 2011 to require any convicted felon to wait at least five years after completion of their sentences before petitioning the state for the restoration of their civil rights, including the right to vote. Felons convicted of murder or sex offenses must wait seven years.
That 2011 vote dismantled a system of streamlined voting rights restoration championed by Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist.
Reacting to the judge's decision, Crist tweeted: "The historic underpinning of denying civil rights to nonviolent ex-felons is undeniable. Justice delayed is justice denied."
The other three officials who must quickly respond to Tuesday's ruling are Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is term-limited; Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Scott appointee and candidate for a four-year term; and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a candidate for governor.
Like Scott, all three are Republicans. The four officials meet quarterly as a clemency board to rule on petitions from convicted felons who are seeking to regain the right to vote and other civil rights.
The next Cabinet meeting is scheduled for May 15 — after the judge's deadline to establish a new voting rights restoration system.