The state of Florida routinely violates the constitutional rights of its citizens by permanently revoking the “fundamental right” to vote for anyone convicted of a felony, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the Florida “scheme” unfairly relies on the personal support of the governor for citizens to regain the right to vote. In a strongly worded ruling, he called the state’s defense of voter disenfranchisement “nonsensical,” a withering criticism directed at Gov. Rick Scott, the lead defendant in the case.
“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. ... The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”
Walker wrote: “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. No more. When the risk of state-sanctioned viewpoint discrimination skulks near the franchise, it is the province and duty of this Court to excise such potential bias from infecting the clemency process.”
The judge condemned a system that he said gives “unfettered discretion” to four partisan politicians, and cited as proof a comment Scott made at one hearing when he said: “We can do whatever we want.”
Scott did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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The judge issued an order of summary judgment on three of four counts in favor of Fair Elections Legal Network, a national voting rights group, and the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
They challenged the clemency system on behalf of James Michael Hand, a resident of Cutler Bay, and six other plaintiffs and a class of an estimated 1.5 million felons.
“No longer can politicians arbitrarily deny fundamental rights to citizens of the state of Florida,” attorney Theodore Leopold said.
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