Florida’s fight over felons’ voting rights shifts to Atlanta courtroom

The state and voter advocacy groups are locked in a battle over the state's century-old clemency system.
Part of a crowd of marchers in Tallahassee supporting restoration of voting rights for felons [Steve Bousquet - Times]
Part of a crowd of marchers in Tallahassee supporting restoration of voting rights for felons [Steve Bousquet - Times]
Published July 25, 2018

Gov. Rick Scott and his fellow Republicans on the Cabinet will defend the state's process of restoring voting rights to felons in an Atlanta courtroom Wednesday.

Three judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by the Fair Elections Center, a Washington-based voter advocacy group that persuaded a federal judge to strike down the restoration process as unconstitutional in February.

Scott and the Cabinet won a stay of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker's ruling in April, and the appeals court will hear both sides in the case, known as James Michael Hand et al vs. Rick Scott et al, brought by nine people whose voting rights were revoked due to past felony convictions.

Walker ruled that the system violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of freedom of expression and equal protection by giving four state officials, especially the governor, "unfettered discretion" to decide which felons regain their rights and which don't.

READ MORE: Judge strikes down Florida system for restoring felons' rights

Walker ordered that the system be scrapped and replaced with one that had more specific criteria for restoring felons' rights.

But the appeals court granted a stay on April 25, one day before Walker's sweeping order was scheduled to take effect.

"That seems to us to be a tall order," the Atlanta court said of Walker's decision.

In granting a stay, the appeals court said that the state has a "substantial likelihood" of winning on the merits of the case.

The judges who participated in the April stay were Stanley Marcus, William Pryor and Beverly Martin, with Martin writing a partial dissent.

One question is whether the Atlanta court will rule in time to affect the 2018 election in Florida, where an estimated 1.5 million felons are permanently disenfranchised by Florida's clemency system. The deadline to register to vote in the general election is Oct. 9.

The Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice reform group, filed an argument in the case claiming that stripping felons of their voting rights makes it much harder for them to reenter civil society and be productive citizens.

"Florida accounts for a wildly disproportionate number of citizens disenfranchised nationally," the group contends, or 1.6 million of 6.1 million Americans stripped of the right to vote.

Felons in Florida must wait at least five years after completing all terms of their sentences before they can seek restoration of the right to vote — and other civil rights — from four elected officials including Scott, who by law must personally approve every successful clemency petition.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist changed the rules in 2007 to allow thousands of felons to regain their rights without formal hearings. Scott and three new Cabinet members imposed the five-year waiting period in 2011.

READ MORE: From the archives, the 2011 vote that restricted voting rights

The clemency board also consists of Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The group's next meeting is Wednesday, Sept. 19.

Floridians will decide in November whether to change the Constitution so that felons other than those convicted of murder or sex crimes can regain the right to vote without a hearing. Passage of Amendment 4 requires approval of 60 percent of voters.