As a student of the Florida Constitution and former dean of the Florida State University College of Law, I've followed the debate over Amendment 4 and restoration of rights. I am concerned with some legislators' misconstruction of the amendment and misunderstanding of constitutional standards.
Amendment 4 constitutionally restored voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals who have completed all terms of their sentence including probation and parole, except those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses. On its face the amendment is clear and unambiguous — a view taken by the Florida Supreme Court when it certified the amendment for the ballot in 2017. The court said that "the chief purpose of the amendment is to automatically restore voting rights to felony offenders, except those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, upon completion of all terms of their sentence."
Both the courts and the Legislature are bound by the plain language of Amendment 4. As the Supreme Court stated, "(e)ven when the court is convinced the Legislature really meant and intended something not expressed" in the statute, the court "will not deem itself authorized to depart from the plain meaning of the (statutory) language which is free from ambiguity." Further, the court rejected legislation that modified a right conferred by the constitution that "alters or frustrates the intent of the framers and the people." The text and intent of Amendment 4 are explicit and consistent: Felons who complete their sentences are qualified to vote.
We do not know which, of many good reasons, motivated the overwhelming vote of approval for Amendment 4. Perhaps it was just the fundamental principle of fair play, the idea that once a punishment is served, citizens should get a chance for a fresh start, a second chance. Perhaps some people recognized the substantial research showing that restoration of rights leads to fewer returns to prison.
Some voters may have been dismayed by the findings of Judge Mark Walker, a respected federal judge who found that Florida "automatically disenfranchises" any individual who has been convicted of a felony and wishes to vote. "Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony," Walker wrote. "To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida's governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration."
For whichever reason, the voters rejected the old system. Now the Legislature wants to reinstitute disenfranchisement for people who have completed their criminal sentence but may owe civil financial obligations. The plain language of Amendment 4 makes no mention that civil judgments or liens should constitute a barrier to restoration of one's voting rights. The proposed legislation substitutes legislative judgment for judicial determinations of criminal penalties. Not only does this proposal unconstitutionally usurp judicial authority, it creates a new unjust system in place of the old. It establishes two classes of returning citizens: a group wealthy enough to get their voting rights back and another group too poor to get their voting rights back. That is, on its face, a grave injustice — un-American, and unconstitutional. Widespread mass disenfranchisement of Floridians is the precise, unjust system that nearly 65 percent of voters rejected in passing Amendment 4.
Judge Walker concluded his assessment of pre-Amendment 4 procedure, saying, "In Florida, elected, partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines or standards," Walker continued. "The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not."
By applying the clear terms of Amendment 4 without legislative interference, we can have a constitutional and practical system.
Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte is the former dean of the Florida State University College of Law and past president of Florida State University.