Florida’s system of barring felons from voting unless they receive executive clemency is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Thursday, reports the Orlando Sentinel. In a sharply worded ruling, Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida said a clemency board with “unfettered discretion in restoring voting rights” violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Walker criticized Florida’s process at length, writing that it makes felons “kowtow” to a board that can accept or deny their application for any reason. “A person convicted of a crime may have long ago exited the prison cell and completed probation. Her voting rights, however, remain locked in a dark crypt,” Walker wrote. “Only the state has the key — but the state has swallowed it.”
The ruling throws into limbo the status of 1.5 million ex-felons eligible to seek the restoration of their rights. The judge required the state and the nine ex-convicts who brought the lawsuit to file motions by Feb. 12 on how to fix the rights restoration system. Gov. Rick Scott said he was reviewing the ruling but would “continue to defend this process in the court.” Scott spokesman John Tupps said, “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. 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.” Florida is one of a handful of states where felons’ voting rights aren’t automatically restored after they serve their sentence. Voters’ rights groups gathered enough petitions to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would automatically restore voting rights to felons after they complete their sentences.