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    Judge rejects felons' voting rights suit

    A U.S. judge dismisses the challenge to Florida's method for restoring rights of felons.

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 19, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Felons trying to regain the right to vote lost an important lawsuit Thursday when a federal judge in Miami upheld Florida's process for restoring civil rights.

    The Florida Constitution denies the right to vote to felons who have not had their civil rights restored. The lawsuit alleged that the Constitution, originally written in 1868, is biased against African-Americans, who are disproportionately affected.

    U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King said evidence indicates that the 1968 revision of the Constitution included language preventing felons from voting, without any reference to race or background.

    "The African-American felon plaintiffs have not been denied the right to vote because of an immutable characteristic, but because of their own criminal acts," King wrote in a 16-page order reviewing the case. "Thus, it is not racial discrimination that deprives felons, black or white, of their right to vote, but their own decision to commit an act for which they assume the risks of detection and punishment."

    The judge granted the state's request to dismiss the lawsuit, one of several filed in the wake of the 2000 election recount.

    Florida laws allow felons to seek the restoration of their voting rights once they have completed their sentences and paid restitution to victims, the judge noted. Some lawmakers and civil rights groups have complained that the process is costly and cumbersome because felons must file a formal request to the governor and Cabinet sitting as a Board of Clemency.

    Florida should automatically restore civil rights to felons in much the way it is done in a majority of other states, say lawmakers who have pushed for a law that would make it easier for felons to regain their rights.

    But the judge said Florida has no constitutional obligation to return the right to vote to people convicted of crimes.

    The judge also rejected a claim that the restoration process is the equivalent of an illegal poll tax once charged by Southern states that were trying to prevent blacks from voting.

    "The court finds that victim restitution is a crucial part of the debt the convicted felon owes to both the victim and society," King noted. "Payment of that debt is directly related to the question of the applicant's rehabilitation and readiness to return to the electorate."

    Thomas Johnson, a Gainesville resident who was convicted of selling crack cocaine in New York years ago, and others filed the lawsuit with the help of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York and other civil rights organizations.

    Johnson could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

    Judge King was appointed to the federal bench by President Richard Nixon in 1970 and retired in 1992 but continues to handle cases as a senior judge.

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