Gov. Scott appeals judge’s ruling on voting rights for felons

He had an April 26 deadline to come up with a new way to restore voting rights for felons.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott  vetoed $64 million from the $89 billion state budget that he said included projects that weren't needed or circumvented the budget process. [Mark Wallheiser | Associated Press]
Florida Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $64 million from the $89 billion state budget that he said included projects that weren't needed or circumvented the budget process. [Mark Wallheiser | Associated Press]
Published April 4, 2018|Updated April 4, 2018

Gov. Rick Scott and the state's three Cabinet members are appealing a federal judge's ruling that they must overhaul Florida's system for restoring felons' voting rights and come up with a remedy by April 26.

"People elected by Floridians should determine Florida's clemency rules for convicted criminals, not federal judges," Scott spokesman John Tupps said in a statement. "This process has been in place for decades and is outlined in both the U.S. and Florida constitutions."

The state also asked to delay meeting the April 26 deadline, which drew a sharp rebuke from the judge, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker. Last month, he ordered Scott and the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — to figure out a more fair way to restore voting rights for most felons who have completed their sentences.

"Rather than comply with the requirements of the United States Constitution, defendants continue to insist they can do whatever they want with hundreds of thousands of Floridians' voting rights and absolutely zero standards," Walker wrote in a six-page decision late Wednesday.

While expected, the state's appeal all but ensures that a new restoration system won't be in place by the November election, when Scott, Putnam and Patronis are all expected to be on the ballot. An estimated 1.5 million Floridians have been permanently disenfranchised because of felony convictions.

But in a court document filed in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, the state denied that its restoration process was discriminatory or violated the Constitution. As for Walker's deadline, 30 days wasn't enough time to come up with a solution.

"The board should have adequate time to debate the various options and to carefully craft rules that are likely to engender public confidence, withstand the test of time, and strike an appropriate balance between the diverse and competing interests at stake," the state argued.

In most states, felons have their rights automatically restored. But in Florida, felons who want to vote often have to wait years for a chance to come before the state's clemency board, where they have to appeal to Scott and the Cabinet.

The board meets four times a year and usually hears fewer than 100 cases each time, creating a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.

A three-judge panel with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta will now decide on the constitutionality of the state's current system. But those who will replace Scott and the outgoing Cabinet members could appeal that panel's decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could take years.

The court case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the Fair Elections Legal Network, a national voting rights group, and the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.

Jon Sherman, general counsel for the voting rights group, criticized state officials for choosing not to reform the system.

"We've given Florida an opportunity here to change its ways and stop being an outlier, and bring it in line with the vast majority of states that have automatic restoration of rights," he said. "They're just flatly rejecting that opportunity."

Scott is the lead defendant in the case, but Bondi filed the appeal.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said it was "unfair" to criticize the judge and Scott for inheriting a flawed system. Florida is one of only four states that automatically restricts felons' voting rights for life, he said.

"Everybody recognizes that with the backlog, with the number of people that are affected, this is a system that is broken," Simon said.

Scott's predecessor, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, had a more streamlined process. Under his watch, many felons, not including murderers and sex offenders, had their rights restored without an application process and hearings.

That changed in 2011, when Scott, Putnam, Bondi and then-CFO Jeff Atwater voted to create the current clemency system.

Putnam, who is running for governor, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Walker's ruling was "extreme."

The state's best hope for restoring voting rights to felons now rests with voters in November, said Simon of the ACLU.

Amendment 4 would change the state's constitution to automatically restore the right to vote to most felons in Florida, not including murderers and sex offenders. At least 60 percent of voters would need to approve it, and polls show it has widespread support. The ACLU has contributed $400,000 to support the ballot measure.

"This shouldn't be a battle between a federal judge and the state administration," Simon said.