Thursday, February 01, 2018

Judge strikes down Florida’s system for denying felons’ voting rights (Tampa Bay Times, Tallahassee Democrat, USA Today)

Three cheers for U.S. District Judge Mark Eaton Walker who ruled in Tallahassee today (Feb. 1) that Florida's systematic denial of felons the right to vote is unconstitutional.
Read the full ruling here.  

He quotes corrupt Florida Governor RICHARD LYNN SCOTT as saying in one hearing,
"We can do whatever we want."  

Recidivist constitutional rights violator "SICK RICK" SCOTT justifies his unbridled discretion as having been in place for many years -- in effect a defense of the indefensible based upon Jim Crow Law.  That dawg won't hunt.

To Governor SCOTT, I respond with the the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV.  It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.”

Judge Mark Walker is a legal scholar who clerked for three judges after graduating magna cum laude from the University of Florida Frederic G. Levin College of Law.

From Wikipedia:

Born in Winter Garden, Florida, Walker received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Florida in 1989, graduating first in his class. He received his Juris Doctor from the Fredric G. Levin College of Law at the University of Florida in 1992, magna cum laude. He clerked for Judge Emmett Ripley Cox of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit from 1993 to 1994. He clerked for Justice Stephen H. Grimes of the Florida Supreme Court from 1994 to 1996. He clerked for Judge Robert Lewis Hinkle of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida from 1996 to 1997. He served as an Assistant Public Defender for Florida's Second Judicial Circuit from 1997 to 1999. He served in private practice from 1999 to 2009 specializing in civil litigation and criminal defense. From 2009 to 2012 he served as a Florida Circuit Judge in Tallahassee.[1][2]

Federal judicial service[edit]

On February 16, 2012, President Obama nominated Walker to serve as District Judge for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.[1] He would replace Judge Stephan P. Mickle who took senior status in 2011. His nomination was forwarded by the Senate Judiciary Committee to the full United States Senate on June 7, 2012.[3] The United State Senate voted to confirm Walker on December 6, 2012 in a 94-0 vote. He received his commission on December 7, 2012.[2]

Judge strikes down Florida’s system for denying felons’ voting rights

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said Florida's voter restoration process unfairly relies on the personal support of Gov. Rick Scott. 

Rick Scott
TALLAHASSEE — The state of Florida routinely violates the constitutional rights of its citizens by permanently revoking the "fundamental right" to vote for anyone convicted of a felony, a  federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the Florida "scheme" unfairly relies on the personal support of the governor for citizens to regain the right to vote. In a strongly-worded ruling, he called the state's defense of voter disenfranchisement "nonsensical," a withering criticism of Gov. Rick Scott, the lead defendant in the case.
"Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony," Walker wrote. "To vote again, 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."
Walker wrote: "If any one of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles. No more. When the risk of state-sanctioned viewpoint discrimination skulks near the franchise, it is the province and duty of this Court to excise such potential bias from infecting the clemency process."
The judge condemned a system that he said gives "unfettered discretion" to four partisan politicians, and cited as proof a comment Scott made at one hearing when he said: "We can do whatever we want."
Scott's office issued a statement late Thursday, hinting at an appeal.
"The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons' rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors," said a statement attributed to Scott's communications director, John Tupps. "The process is outlined in Florida's Constitution, and today's ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court."
The decision is by far the greatest legal setback for Scott, a two-term Republican governor who's expected to run for the U.S. Senate.
Scott was the principal architect of the current system that requires all felons to wait at least five years after they complete their sentences, serve probation and pay all restitution, to apply for right to vote and other civil rights.
Scott and the Cabinet, meeting as a clemency board, consider cases four times a year, and usually fewer than 100 cases each time. It can take a decade or longer for a case to be heard, and at present the state has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.
Scott imposed the restrictions in 2011, soon after he was elected, with the support of three fellow Republicans who serve on the Cabinet, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, now a leading candidate for governor.
Scott's actions in 2011 reversed a policy under which many felons, not including murderers and sex offenders, had their rights restored without application process and hearings. That streamlined process was instituted in 2007 by former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican and now a Democratic member of Congress.
"We've known this policy was unjust, and today a federal judge confirmed it's also a violation of constitutional rights," Crist wrote on Facebook.
Walker's decision came nine days after the state approved a ballot measure that, if passed in November, would automatically restore the voting rights of about 1.2 million felons, not including convicted murderers and sex offenders.
That proposal will appear as Amendment 4 on the Nov. 6 ballot in Florida.
A leader of the initiative is Desmond Meade of Orlando, a law school graduate of Florida International University and a convicted felon waiting to have his rights restored.
Meade said the judge's decision validated the work of more than a million Florida voters who signed petitions that helped get the measure on the ballot.
"The system is broken, and now we know not only is it broken, but the courts are saying it's unconstitutional," Meade said.
Walker, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, ruled that Florida's lifetime ban on the right to vote violates the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which are the guarantees of freedom of expression, due process and equal protection under law.
Throughout his 43-page ruling, Walker cited the arbitrariness of Florida's system. Felons routinely have been denied their voting rights because they have received speeding tickets or failed to pay child support.
"So the state then requires the former felon to conduct and comport herself to the satisfaction of the board's subjective — and frankly, mythical — standards," Walker wrote. "Courts view unfettered governmental discretion over protected constitutional rights with profound suspicion."
The judge issued an order of summary judgment on three of four counts in favor of Fair Elections Legal Network, a national voting rights group, and the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
They challenged the clemency system on behalf of James Michael Hand, a resident of Cutler Bay south of Miami, and six other plaintiffs and a class of an estimated 1.5 million felons.
"No longer can politicians arbitrarily deny fundamental rights to citizens of the state of Florida," attorney Theodore Leopold said.
The judge gave both sides in the case until Feb. 12 to file briefings on how to permanently remedy the constitutional deficiencies in Florida's system.
Scott and Cabinet members are scheduled to hear the next round of clemency petitions in March.
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.

Judge: Florida's voter restoration process unconstitutional

In a landmark ruling with far-reaching implications, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker has found Florida's scheme for restoring the voting rights of felons unconstitutional.
Walker, in a 43-page order issued today, found that Florida "automatically disenfranchises" any individual who has been convicted of a felony and wishes to vote.
"Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony," Walker wrote. "To vote again, 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."

Florida and Felon Voting Rights: 
The ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by James Michael Hand and eight other felons who completed their sentences, including probation, but were not deemed eligible to vote.
"In Florida, elected, partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines or standards," Walker continued. "The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not."
Walker, who sits on the bench in the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee, took aim at Gov. Rick Scott, whom the nine plaintiffs sued along with Florida’s Executive Clemency Board. The board consists of the governor, the attorney general, the chief financial officer and the agriculture commissioner.
“ ‘We can do whatever we want,’ the governor said at one clemency hearing,” Walker wrote. “One need not search long to find alarming illustrations of this scheme in action.”
Walker highlighted a 2010 case, in which Steven Warner, a white man, cast an illegal ballot. Three years later, he sought the restoration of his voting rights before the state’s Clemency Board. Gov. Scott asked him at the time about his illegal voting. When the man said he voted for Scott, the governor laughed. A few seconds later, Scott granted the man his voting rights.
"The question is whether the Clemency Board's limitless power over plaintiffs' vote restoration violates their First Amendment rights to free association and free expression. It does," Walker wrote. "This should not be a close question."
The Governor's Office responded to the order by noting that the Clemency Board has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors. 
"The process is outlined in Florida's Constitution, and today's ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court," said John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott. "The Governor believes that convicted felons should show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities. While we are reviewing today’s ruling, we will continue to defend this process in the court.”
The Fair Elections Legal Network and Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, which has offices in Florida, filed the lawsuit in March on behalf of a proposed class of nearly 1.5 million felons, according to a news release from the voting rights group and the law firm.
“Today a federal court said what so many Floridians have known for so long — that the state’s arbitrary restoration process, which forces former felons to beg for their right to vote, violates the oldest and most basic principles of our democracy,” said Jon Sherman, senior counsel for the Fair Elections Legal Network.
Tallahassee attorney Reggie Garcia, who represents felons who seek restoration of their rights, said any federal court ruling that interprets Florida’s constitution and the application of clemency power and rules will increase awareness of the state’s felons.
“This is very timely with last week’s decision by the Division of Elections to put Amendment 4, granting automatic voting rights to most felons, on the November 2018 ballot,” he said.
Walker noted several instances "of former felons who professed political views amenable to the board's members, who then received voting rights, while those who expressed contrary political views to the board were denied those same rights."
He went on to say that "viewpoint discrimination is deeply antithetical to the Constitution and our nation's longstanding values."
Hand, a resident of Cutler Bay in South Florida, was convicted of a felony in state court and released from prison in 1986, according to court records. He completed his sentence in 2002 and later applied to get his voting rights back.
During a Clemency Board hearing in 2011, his application was denied. Gov. Scott cited his record of traffic tickets and said, “Congratulations on turning your life around. Congratulations on your business. In light of the significant issue — you know, traffic violations — and your inability to comply with the law in that manner, I’m going to deny you restoration of civil rights at this time," court records stated.
Walker also found the lack of time limits in processing and deciding vote restoration unconstitutional. He noted the Clemency Board “may defer restoration of rights for years or forever."
"Indefinite can-kicking is not some Floridian fairy tale like a line-less Space Mountain," he wrote. "The board regularly invokes some unknown future date as the appropriate time to revisit a restoration denial.”
He cited one case in which Gov. Scott told a 54-year-old man he would have to wait 50 years before he could reapply for his voting rights to be restored. The judge also detailed the case of Virginia Kay Atkins. Ten years after her release from prison, Scott informed her he did not feel “comfortable” restoring her rights.
Walker's order notes that 154,000 citizens had their voting rights restored during the last four years of former Gov. Charlie Crist's administration. He said that number plummeted to fewer than 3,000 people since Scott took office in 2011.
"The context of these numbers is not lost on the court," Walker wrote. "More than one-tenth of Florida's voting population — nearly 1.7 million as of 2016 — cannot vote because they have been decimated from the body politic. More than one in five of Florida's African American voting-age population cannot vote."
Walker did not offer a remedy but set a Feb. 12 deadline for both sides to provide additional briefs on how to fix the unconstitutional “voter-restoration scheme.”   
Check back with for more on this story.

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