POLITICS
04/25/2018 09:33 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2018

Federal Court Says Florida Can Hold Off On New System For Restoring Voting Rights

Florida is just one of four states that permanently disenfranchises people who commit a felony.

A federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and other top state officials do not have to immediately come up with a new system for restoring voting rights to former felons.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker had ordered Florida to come up with a new system by April 26, but a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit temporarily blocked that ruling on Wednesday, issuing a stay while the state appeals.

The Florida clemency board had planned an emergency meeting Wednesday evening to discuss changes to its system for restoring voting rights, but canceled it after the 11th Circuit’s ruling.

Former felons in Florida can request to have their voting rights restored, but there is no guarantee it will happen (some other states restore voting rights automatically). In fact, Florida is just one of four states that permanently disenfranchises people who commit a felony by default. After a waiting period, people who have entirely completed their sentences can apply to get their voting rights restored by the state’s executive clemency board ― which consists of the governor, attorney general, agriculture commissioner and the state’s chief investment officer.

The voting rights restoration process has moved extremely slowly under Scott, Walker noted in a February opinion. As of 2016, there were about 1.5 million people disenfranchised in Florida, making it the state with the largest disenfranchised population in the country, according to The Sentencing Project.

In a scathing ruling, Walker ruled earlier this year that Florida’s process violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and freedom of expression, because the board had unlimited discretion to restore voting rights.

The case, called Hand v. Scott, is being brought on behalf of nine felons seeking to have their voting rights restored. 

“The ruling from the 11th Circuit preserves the status quo. The case will be briefed and argued to the 11th Circuit on the merits,” lawyers for those challenging the state’s system said in a statement Wednesday.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Walker had blocked Florida from using the clemency board to restore voting rights, but the 11th Circuit’s stay will allow it to resume doing so until the appellate court resolves the case.

The three 11th Circuit judges who issued the Wednesday ruling were Stanley Marcus, a Bill Clinton appointee, William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee Beverly Martin, a Barack Obama appointee, concurred with the opinion in part and dissented in part.

Writing for the majority, Marcus said that Florida was likely to succeed on the merits of its appeal. He pointed to a handful of decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts that clearly showed state officials had broad discretion to choose how to restore voting rights. Furthermore, he said that the plaintiffs challenging the state’s system did not claim any discrimination had actually taken place, only that the state’s system left room for discrimination to occur.

Marcus also wrote that Section 2 of the 14th Amendment gave states the ability to disenfranchise people for certain crimes and that the First Amendment did not offer voting protections beyond those outlined in the 14th Amendment. 

Writing separately, Martin said that Florida had only demonstrated a “mere possibility” of succeeding on the full appeal. She noted that the protections of the First Amendment did extend to the right to vote and that “our First Amendment rights of free expression and free association are most critical when they are invoked to ensure citizens’ free and full participation in the political process.” 

Martin did acknowledge that states have the authority to disenfranchise individuals convicted of felonies. Recognizing that power, she said she would only block a portion of Walker’s ruling that prevented the state from continuing to permanently disenfranchise people, but leave the rest of it in place.

This story has been updated with opinions from Marcus and Martin.

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