Gov. Rick Scott and Florida’s three elected Cabinet members Friday mounted a new legal defense of the state’s 150-year-old system for restoring the voting rights of convicted felons.
In a filing with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, the four Republican state officials said U.S. District Judge Mark Walker repeatedly “erred” and abused the court’s discretion when he struck down the system as unconstitutional in March.
Walker had ordered the state to create a new clemency system for felons within 30 days, but on the night before the deadline, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit stayed Walker’s order, which criticized the existing system for being arbitrary and for giving the governor too much power over every case.
“No court,” the state argues, “has ever held or opined that clemency decisions in general or vote-restoration decisions in particular must be made pursuant to specific standards and a veritable host of states clemency officials broad discretion to grant pardons to, and thereby restore the voting rights of, some or all categories of convicted felons.”
The state also noted that in a 50-year-old Florida case that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 1969, convicted felon Rufus Beacham unsuccessfully challenged the voting rights restoration system as “purely discretionary [and without] specific standards.”
The challenge to the Florida system was brought by the Fair Elections Center, an election reform group based in Washington.
Three of the four officials who are defending the system will face the voters this fall. Scott is running for the U.S. Senate; Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is running for governor; and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is running for a four-year term.
Florida’s system requires convicted felons to wait five years before they can apply for the restoration of their civil rights, including the right to vote.
Voters in November will decide whether to scrap the current system and replace it with an automatic restoration of voting rights for felons, except for those convicted of murder or sex crimes.
The Atlanta court has scheduled oral arguments in the case for the week of July 23. With the case pending, the state has suspended clemency hearings, with a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.