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Unconstitutional Clemency Ruling Creates Multiple Restoration Scenarios

Florida Gov. Rick Scott
The Florida Channel

Judge Mark Walker’s decision on Florida’s felon voting rights process has breathed new life into the restoration debate. By declaring the process unconstitutional and giving Governor Rick Scott a deadline to create a new system, Walker has opened the door to many scenarios.

Melvin Blackshear is an ex-felon who says he has been disenfranchised by Florida’s restoration process.

“Society wanted us to reform, to rehabilitate, and become part of society. But, without our civil rights, we’re really not part of society,” Blackshear says.

Blackshear has been out of prison for more than five years, and has found without his civil rights, readjusting to a normal life is an uphill battle.

“They don’t realize what we go through to try and better ourselves. So we need those rights. Those rights are important. Transition programs, re-entry programs are good, but that’s just half of it. We need our rights, we need that,” Blackshear says. 

Blackshear is one of the one-and-a-half million ex-felons who are waiting for their voting rights to be restored under Governor Rick Scott’s restoration process—a  process that was deemed unconstitutional by U.S. District court Judge Mark Walker. Walker has ordered Scott to come up with a new set of “neutral” rules by April 26th.

Jon Sherman, Senior Counsel for Fair Elections Legal Network, explains what Walker’s neutral ruling could mean.

“He said that the changes they have to make to the voting restoration scheme have to be robust and meaningful. They have to be specific. He said they can no longer rely on discretion, subjective criteria. They would have to have specific neutral criteria is the phrase,” Sherman says. He worries the open-ended ruling opens the door to more trouble. “Whatever they do though, it may lead to other constitutional issues. So, if they create a new scheme that has a rational, uniform, non-arbitrary, but completely irrational requirements.”

But, Carol Weissert, a political science professor at Florida State University, says Walker’s decision could lead to a system based on common sense.

“The severity of the crime that was committed. They might look at how the person has lived his or her life since then. There are a variety of things that are sort of common sense, make sense, that they might be looking at in terms of coming up with this. But I think this is what the judge is saying. Just come up with some of these rather than having no apparent criteria that make it look like the decision is not being made on a rational basis.”

Weissert says the issue lurking behind this situation is Amendment 4, which restores felon-voting rights immediately after their time has been served. The Amendment is on November’s ballot, and was placed there by a citizen led initiative that garnered more than 750,000 signatures.   

Weissert believes if Scott does make a change to the current system by the deadline then proponents for the amendment might have to change their campaign strategy.

“People who are in favor of that might have to argue why it should be in the constitution. I think they can make that argument. I think that’s a pretty good argument to make because we’ve changed several times under different governors. But, I think it would be a less compelling argument than the one they have now,” Weissert says.   

A spokesman for Governor Scott has said Scott will be reviewing Walker’s ruling.