11th Circuit Grants Florida Request to Delay Felon Voting Rights

(CN) – The 11th Circuit ruled Wednesday that the state of Florida does not have to immediately come up with a new system for restoring voting rights to former felons.

The ruling granted Gov. Rick Scott’s request to block a lower court’s order to revamp the current system of restoring voting rights for convicted felons by April 26.

According to the three-judge panel, long-standing precedent shows governors have broad discretion in granting clemency and balked at changing the process so quickly.

“We are reluctant to upset the system now in place – particularly since the district court order creates so truncated a schedule – when there is a good chance the district court’s order may be overturned, and the system would need to be changed still again, potentially re-disenfranchising those who have been reenfranchised pursuant to the district court’s injunction,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus in the opinion.

The decision comes after two months of legal wrangling between Florida’s executive clemency board, which consists of Gov. Scott and his cabinet members, and U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who struck down the state’s current clemency process in February.

After calling the process arbitrary and unconstitutional, Walker ordered the clemency board to come up with a new method of restoring felons’ voting rights. When Scott asked for a delay while the state appealed to the 11th District, the judge blasted the clemency board for dragging their feet.

“Rather than comply with the requirements of the United States Constitution, defendants continue to insist they can do whatever they want with thousands of Floridians’ voting rights and absolutely zero standards,” Walker wrote in the April 5th order.

The underlying lawsuit was brought by seven ex-felons arguing the restoration process violates the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment. Under the current process, largely shaped by Scott and his cabinet in 2011, any felon wishing to restore their voting rights must wait five or seven years after completing their sentence, including probation, before petitioning the clemency board.

The ex-felons alleged the clemency board’s decisions were inconsistent, vague and could have been influenced by political beliefs.

The courts have long held that states have broad powers to restrict felons’ right to vote, unless decisions are based on racial discrimination.

But, as noted by the 11th Circuit, the felons did not allege discrimination based on race, national origin or other protected classes.

“All we have is the assertion by the [former felons] and a statement by the district court that there is a real ‘risk’ of disparate treatment and discrimination, precisely because the Florida regime is standardless,” wrote Judge Marcus.

“Such of risk of discrimination, however, is likely insufficient” under binding precedent, he wrote.

Florida is one of four states that require ex-felons to petition for reenfranchisement. The state is home to 27 percent of all disenfranchised felons in the U.S., according to data compiled by the Sentencing Project.

Florida’s clemency process has faced renewed opposition in recent years and politicians from both parties have publicly called for a less onerous system. In January, a voting rights advocacy group announced they had enough signatures to put a voting rights amendment on the 2018 ballot.

A February poll by Quinnipiac University found 67 percent of the state’s voters supported giving most felons the right to vote.

“We are glad that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the lower court’s reckless ruling,” said John Tupps, communications director for Gov. Scott, in an e-mailed statement. “Judges should interpret the law, not create it.”

Immediately after the ruling came down, Scott cancelled a planned meeting of the clemency board to finalize a new set of voting rights-restoration rules.

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