A judge struck down Florida’s process of granting and denying voting rights to former felons while making a reference to his alma mater.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walkers said Florida’s process of granting and denying voting rights to former felons is inconsistent in a ruling on Thursday.
“A state cannot ‘re-enfranchise only those felons who are more than six-feet tall,’ who are blue-eyed, who were born in August, who root for the Florida Gators, or who call heads during a coin flip. Nor can it violate the First Amendment."
When deciding who to restore rights to, the Florida’s Executive Clemency Board, consisting of Gov. Rick Scott and three other state officials, has “unfettered discretion,” Walker said in his ruling. He wrote the process violates the First Amendment and is potentially discriminatory.
Scott enacted Florida’s current restoration process in 2011 when he and the Cabinet imposed stricter rules on former felons vying for restoration, including a five-year waiting period after sentence completion.
The governor has the sole discretion to deny clemency at any time, according to the Rules of Executive Clemency. Scott can grant clemency with the approval of at least two other board members.
Walker, a UF law school alumnus, did not mince words in his ruling, calling part of the state’s defense “nonsensical.” The defence argued that a felon loses interest in the right to vote until voting rights are restored Walker ruled against the state on three of four counts, stating Florida’s clemency process violates the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which requires equal treatment under the law for all people.
The Fair Elections Legal Network and the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll challenged the process on behalf of seven felons who were denied voting restoration.
Walker criticized the board’s subjectivity and quoted Scott himself speaking about the board at a meeting in Dec. 2016.
“Clemency is… is... there’s no standard,” Scott said. “We can do whatever we want.”
Walker’s decision came just nine days after the state approved a ballot to restore felon voting rights in November, according to Alligator archives. Both parties have until next Monday to file briefings proposing how to fix the process’ shortcomings.
Jon Sherman, a senior counsel with the Fair Elections Legal Network, said the ruling is a significant step forward. He said past applicants were denied restoration for reasons ranging from traffic tickets to alcohol consumption.
“When you disenfranchise more than 10 percent of the adult population of a state, there’s no one that’s not affected,” Sherman said.
The ruling cites the clemency petition of Steven Warner, a white felon who voted illegally during the 2010 gubernatorial election. When asked who he voted for, Warner told Scott, “Actually, I voted for you.” Scott laughed and restored Warner’s voting rights, according to the ruling.
The plaintiffs identified five former felons who also cast illegal ballots but were denied clemency by Scott. Four of the five rejected applicants were African-American.
“It was a system set up to fail and delay,” said attorney Ted Leopold, who represented the seven felons who challenged Florida’s clemency process. “This ruling tells (felons) that there’s an end in sight for the sunshine to come through.”