Florida Politics

This man was granted a pardon. Most others remain in civil-rights limbo.

Dennis Hill, 39, of Groveland, with his mother, Barbara Gaines, received a pardon Thursday, March 8, 2018, from Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet in their quarterly meeting as the state clemency board.
Dennis Hill, 39, of Groveland, with his mother, Barbara Gaines, received a pardon Thursday, March 8, 2018, from Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet in their quarterly meeting as the state clemency board. Tampa Bay Times

Barbara Gaines’ son got a pardon from Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, and she got Scott’s autograph, too.

The Orlando woman and her son were among the lucky ones Thursday.

Dozens of other people who lost the right to vote in long-ago felony convictions remain in limbo because a federal judge has struck down Florida’s civil rights restoration process as unconstitutional.

After waiting for years for their petitions to be considered, they traveled to Tallahassee to seek mercy from Scott and the three Cabinet members, who meet quarterly as the board of clemency. But with the restoration process discredited by the courts, the cases weren’t considered.

“Several cases that were scheduled to be heard today have been continued because a federal judge has objected to our system for restoring civil rights,” Scott said as the meeting began. “Although we strongly disagree with the judge’s ruling, we will respect his order not to consider applications for restoration of civil rights while we appeal his decision.”

The meeting’s printed agenda said: “All RCR [restoration of civil rights] cases are continued until further notice.” A total of 62 cases were in that category involving the right to vote, run for office and serve on a jury.

Scott and Cabinet members decided several cases that will allow people to carry guns, but they postponed voting rights cases.

The clemency board meets four times a year. It’s not unusual for people to wait a decade or longer to have their rights restoration pleas considered.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee ruled last month that the Florida rights restoration system is unconstitutional.

“To vote again,” Walker wrote in his decision, “disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration … The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”

Scott and the Cabinet members, all of whom are Republicans, defended the system, which requires felons to wait at least five years before seeking the restoration of their rights.

Scott and the Cabinet adopted the current system in 2011. They will appeal Walker’s ruling and have not proposed alternatives to the current system, which has a backlog of more than 10,000 unresolved cases.

Petitions for pardons are distinct from the civil rights restoration process, so they were taken up at Thursday’s clemency meeting.

Felons who have served their time say they have had problems getting jobs and living normal lives because of the stigma of having permanently lost their civil rights.

Gaines, who works for an Orlando law firm, was very thankful that her son, Dennis Hill, 39, of Groveland, received a full pardon for a drug conspiracy conviction more than two decades ago when he was a teenager.

“I feel wonderful, relieved, a new person,” Hill said after the vote as he held the hand of his young son. “It actually took me nine years.”

His mother proudly held a yellow napkin that Scott signed with a felt-tip pen and the inscription “You’re the best.”

The clemency board approved about a dozen pardons, restoring all civil rights that petitioners had before being convicted, including the right to own firearms.

Florida voters will decide in November whether to approve a ballot initiative to allow most convicted felons to regain the right to vote without having to endure the state’s time-consuming clemency process. Amendment 4 will require approval of at least 60 percent of voters to become law.

About 1.5 million Floridians are permanently disenfranchised by the current system.