TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott wants a federal court judge to let him and fellow Cabinet members rewrite state rules for restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee ruled Feb. 1 the state’s system for restoring rights to felons was arbitrary and open to the potential for bias in granting clemency.
But in a motion filed Monday, the Scott administration argued the court shouldn’t set up a new system on its own but leave it to elected officials. The filing also stated the administration would likely appeal the ruling.
“Officials elected by Floridians, not judges, have the authority to determine Florida’s clemency process for convicted felons,” Scott 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
The Fair Elections Legal Network, the Washington D.C.-based voting rights group that brought the lawsuit on behalf of nine ex-felons, wants the court to restore the right to vote for all eligible felons as soon as the five-year waiting period required by state law has passed.
“Plaintiffs propose that this court order the restoration of the right to vote to all persons with felony convictions immediately following the completion of any waiting period of a specified duration of time set forth in Florida state law or the Rules of Executive Clemency,” the filing from FELN states.
Florida is one of three states where felons do not automatically get their rights restored after they serve their sentences. Felons who wish to regain the right to vote must wait five years before applying to the clemency board. Another wait ensues before getting a hearing. There’s a current backlog of more than 10,000, and the board meets just four times a year.
There are about 1.5 million ex-felons in Florida eligible to seek the restoration of their rights.
The Executive Clemency Board — comprised of Scott and Cabinet members Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — reviews cases on an individual basis and can grant or deny voting rights for any reason.
A movement to restore felons’ voting rights automatically in Florida was already gaining steam before the lawsuit was filed last year. Voters’ rights groups gathered enough petitions to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot restore the rights of felons, except those convicted of murder or a sexual offense.
The measure needs the support of 60 percent of voters to become law.
In his decision, Walker ruled Florida’s system gives “unfettered discretion in restoring voting rights” to Scott and the Cabinet and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of felons.
“If any one of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles,” wrote Walker, who has not given an indication on when he will rule on the case. “No more.”
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