Court urged to reject state rights restoration process

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With arguments at a federal appeals court little more than a month away, attorneys for nine felons filed a 72-page brief Thursday urging the judges to find that Florida’s system of restoring felons’ voting rights is unconstitutional.

The brief asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a ruling by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker that struck down the system. Arguments are scheduled July 25 at the appeals court in Atlanta.

The restoration of felon rights has long been a controversial legal and political issue in Florida, and Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi changed the system after they took office in 2011 to effectively make restoration harder.

Scott, Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis serve as the state’s clemency board and make decisions about restoration.

Under the current process, felons must wait five or seven years after their sentences are complete to apply to have rights restored.

After applications are filed, the process can take years to complete.

In the brief filed Thursday, attorneys for the felons said the case is primarily a First Amendment challenge to an “arbitrary process” for restoring the right to vote.

“Florida’s laws have long subjected felons to an arbitrary scheme in which government officials exercise limitless power to decide if and when individual felons may vote,” the brief said. “These laws violate the Constitution by arbitrarily licensing or allocating First Amendment-protected rights and leaving restoration applicants in limbo for years. Plaintiffs challenge the lack of any rules, standards, criteria, or reasonable time limits for this voting rights restoration scheme.”

But in a brief last month, attorneys for the state urged the appeals court to overturn Walker’s ruling.

The brief said caselaw gives the clemency board discretion in restoring rights.

“Florida’s 150-year-old system for offering executive clemency to convicted felons is not facially unconstitutional insofar as it gives the Executive Clemency Board discretion to make clemency decisions implicating restoration of voting rights without resort to specific standards,” the state brief said.