Judge Denies Florida Governor’s Request to Delay Felon Voting Rights

(CN) – Hours after Florida Gov. Rick Scott asked a federal court for a delay in creating a new voting-rights restoration process for former felons, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker responded with a strongly worded denial late Wednesday.

“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 six-page order denying the governor’s request. “They ask this court to stay its prior orders. No.”

The judge’s order is the latest salvo in a legal battle over Florida’s controversial system of restoring voting rights to former felons.

Florida is one of four states that require ex-felons to petition for enfranchisement. 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.

Last March, seven ex-felons brought a class-action suit against the clemency board – made up of Scott and his elected cabinet – arguing the restoration process violates the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs alleged the clemency board’s decisions were inconsistent, vague and could have been influenced by political beliefs.

In a February ruling, Judge Walker agreed and openly attacked Scott and the board over their “unfettered discretion” to deny voting rights “for any reason.” On March 27, Walker permanently blocked the clemency process and ordered the state to come up with a new system within 30 days.

On Wednesday, Solicitor General Amit Agarval, on behalf of Scott and the clemency board, filed a notice of appeal, arguing the state is allowed to use discretion when restoring voting rights to some felons. The motion also disputed any claims of discrimination and asked to delay implementation of a new voting rights restoration process.

“At minimum, defendants may not be ordered to promulgate new criteria in 30 days,” Agarval wrote in the motion. “Florida’s Constitution has authorized the discretionary restoration of voting rights for the past 150 years.”

Walker rebuked the argument in his order.

“Defendants stamp their feet and wail that 30 days is ‘not a reasonably calculated’ time to create a constitutional system of executive clemency,” he wrote. “But drafting new rules need not be complicated or time-consuming. Defendants could simply identify those rules that run afoul of the Constitution and rewrite them with specific and neutral standards. Instead, defendants scream into the wind various questions it might consider in crafting constitutional rules. Answering those questions may be a better use of time.”

Later, Walker calls the state’s sovereignty argument rooted in “neither common sense or reality.”

“This court does not play games,” Walker wrote in the order’s last paragraph. “This court is not going to sit on defendants’ motion and run out the clock. If the Eleventh Circuit finds that a clemency scheme granting unfettered discretion to elected officials – with personal stakes in shaping the electorate – over plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights passes constitutional muster, this court must accept that holding. Until that day, if it ever comes, this court denies defendants’ request for a stay.”

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office declined to comment. Governor Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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