The plaintiffs, Florida residents who had completed sentences imposed for felony convictions, successfully challenged as unconstitutional Florida’s arbitrary scheme for re-enfranchisement, obtaining an order from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida requiring the State to create new rules that provided a fair process for considering the return of their right to vote. While the State’s appeal of that order to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals was pending, on November 6, 2018 Florida’s voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution that automatically restores the voting rights of former felons who have completed the terms of their sentences, prompting the Eleventh Circuit to dismiss the appeal as moot.
Cohen Milstein attorneys, Theodore J. Leopold, Diana L. Martin, and Poorad Razavi, and Jon Sherman, Senior Counsel at Fair Elections Legal Network, a national voting rights organization, represented James Michael Hand, Joseph James Galasso, Harold W. Gircsis, Jr., Christopher Michael Smith, William Bass, Jermaine Johnekins, Kevin Michael Grenier, and Yraida Leonides Guanipa, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated.
On March 13, 2017, Cohen Milstein and Fair Elections Legal Network filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against Florida’s Executive Clemency Board on behalf of seven convicted felons, and all those similarly situated, who had completed the terms of their sentences, thereby repaying their debts to society, and whose applications for restoration of their voting rights in the state of Florida were denied under Florida’s arbitrary re-enfranchisement scheme.
Florida was one of four states in the U.S. that denied the right to vote to all former felons until they petitioned for rights restoration. At the time Cohen Milstein filed this class action, almost 1.5 million Floridians were disenfranchised despite having completed their sentences because Florida required former felons to successfully petition the Executive Clemency Board to have their right to vote reinstated. The Executive Clemency Board was comprised of the Governor of Florida, the Attorney General, the Chief Financial Officer, and the Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. To be granted, a restoration application must have been approved by a majority of the Board members and the Governor.
The class action suit, filed in Tallahassee, alleged Florida’s voting rights restoration procedure was arbitrary in that there were no laws, rules, or regulations to guide the Executive Clemency Board’s decisions to reinstate or deny reinstatement of the fundamental right to vote, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The complaint sought to reform Florida’s clemency process by properly restoring the rights of the Plaintiffs and other convicted felons who had completed their sentences, including parole and probation, and have, thereby, repaid their debts to society.
On February 1, 2018, Cohen Milstein’s Theodore J. Leopold, Diana L. Martin, and Poorad Razavi and Fair Elections Legal Network achieved a major victory on behalf of their clients and the putative class members. U.S. District Court Judge Mark E. Walker ruled that the process by which Florida’s Clemency Board granted or denied former felons’ restoration of voting rights applications was unconstitutionally arbitrary and violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right of free association and free expression, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment.
On March 27, 2018, Judge Mark Walker issued a permanent injunction, requiring Florida’s Executive Clemency Board to establish a new voting rights restoration process for former felons by April 26, 2018. The State appealed that order to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately dismissed the appeal as moot on January 30, 2020 after Florida’s voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution in November 6, 2018 that automatically restores the voting rights of former felons who have completed the terms of their sentences. Cohen Milstein is proud that their pursuit of this important case helped bring the State’s unconstitutional treatment of Florida’s former felons to the public’s attention, and played some part in the citizens of Florida amending their state constitution to provide for the automatic restoration of voting rights to their fellow citizens who have fully repaid their debts to society.
The case is styled: Hand, et al. v. Scott, et al., Case No. 4:17-cv-00128-MW-CAS, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.