Confronted with a federal judge’s looming deadline, Gov. Rick Scott called an unusual emergency meeting of the Cabinet for late Wednesday, hours before the deadline in a court order to enact a new system for felons to regain the right to vote.
Called on 24 hours notice — the shortest time required by state law — the meeting is in response to an injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker a month ago that the Republican governor calls “reckless.”
Walker ruled March 27 that Florida’s system of requiring felons to wait five years to petition Scott and three elected Cabinet members for the right to vote is “fatally flawed” because it is so arbitrary. He ordered a new system in place by April 26.
Despite the ruling, Scott and the three elected Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — have not met since March 27.
The four officials also make up a state clemency board that meets four times a year to consider requests by convicted felons to regain specific rights, including the right to vote.
Three months after taking office, in April 2011, Scott scrapped the previous system under which most felons were allowed to vote without formal hearings. In its place, the state requires every felon to wait at least five years before submitting a request for restoration of the right to vote, a process that often takes a decade or more.
Scott and Cabinet members, all represented by Bondi, filed a motion with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, asking that Walker’s order be put on hold or stayed, pending an appeal. The Atlanta court has not acted on the request.
In the absence of a decision by the court, legal experts say Scott and the Cabinet have limited legal options. They could impose temporary new clemency rules or seek emergency intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Legal experts said it was highly unlikely that the state would risk a contempt of court finding for failing to heed Walker’s injunction, because the state argues regularly before the Atlanta court on a variety of issues.
“I would think not,” said Talbot (Sandy) D’Alemberte, a former dean of the Florida State University law school and former president of the American Bar Association.
D’Alemberte, a former Democratic state legislator from Miami, said Scott’s reaction to the order was “stupid” and added: “The judge’s order was devastating in my judgment.”
Scott called Walker’s decision “unprecedented” and “reckless” because it ordered the state to change current practices in a matter of weeks.
Putnam, who is running to replace Scott as governor, did not respond to a request for comment.
At a campaign appearance two weeks ago, Putnam expressed support for relaxing clemency rules, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
“There ought to be a faster, easier way for nonviolent felons to get their rights restored,” Putnam said. “As we look at moving forward with complying with the judge’s order ... that’s the kind of structure that I would support.”
Florida voters will decide in November whether to amend the state Constitution to allow most felons to automatically regain their voting rights.
A February poll by Quinnipiac University showed 67 percent of voters supported the proposal and 27 percent opposed it.
The emergency meeting will be at 9:30 p.m., and will be live streamed on the Florida Channel.
A one-sentence agenda said: “Consideration of federal court’s decision in clemency case.”
Neither Scott nor any of the three Cabinet members will be physically present at the state Capitol. All will take part by phone, officials said.
Jon Sherman, a Washington, D.C., attorney for the Fair Elections Legal Network, which successfully challenged the 150-year-old clemency system, declined to comment on what might happen.
“We’re sort of in a holding pattern,” Sherman said.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com and follow @stevebousquet