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Court passes on felon voters law

Democrats may mount a ballot initiative in 2006 after the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to consider a challenge to the state's ban on voting rights for former felons.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
Published November 15, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - A five-year effort to win automatic restoration of voting rights for former felons in Florida reached a legal dead end Monday.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider a challenge to the state's ban on voting rights for ex-felons that was enacted shortly after the Civil War. The case was brought by the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice on behalf of 600,000 people in Florida, an estimated one-third of whom are African-Americans.

The case of Johnson vs. Bush had implications for millions of ineligible voters across the country and was the first major voting rights case to reach the nation's highest court since John Roberts Jr. became chief justice last month.

The result leaves Florida the largest of seven states that strip felons of all civil rights after leaving prison unless they seek and win restoration of their rights through a petition process. Those rights include the right to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, own a firearm or hold professional licenses.

"This is a sad day for our democracy," said Catherine Weiss, associate counsel at the Brennan Center. "The court has not only missed an opportunity to correct a great historic injustice, but it has shut the courthouse door in the face of hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised citizens."

Gov. Jeb Bush's office praised the decision.

"We believe we have a fair process in place in the state of Florida," spokeswoman Alia Faraj said. "The governor and clemency board have streamlined the process so that felons have their rights restored as quickly as possible."

The Brennan Center for Justice and other groups seeking civil rights for ex-felons had challenged the Florida law as discriminatory under the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Attorneys for Florida countered that states can set their own policies and that Congress, in enacting the 1965 law, did not have power to intrude into the "sovereign right of every state" to set qualifications for voting.

The Brennan Center sued the state in September 2000, but the case took on new urgency later that year after complaints by some black voters that they were kept from voting in the presidential election that was decided in George W. Bush's favor by 537 votes.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other critics of the state's rules accused Republicans of using the civil rights barriers as a way to suppress voting by blacks - who overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

Gov. Bush and Florida's three elected Cabinet members, sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, eased the rules for restoring civil rights last year in an effort to cut the waiting lists of felons, some of whom have waited years to regain the right to vote.

One rule change automatically restored the rights of felons who did not commit a new crime for five years after release, unless they originally were convicted of one of several specific violent crimes.

As a result, the waiting list of clemency applications, most of which involve civil rights, has decreased from about 11,705 to 9,600, said Jane Tillman, a spokeswoman for the Florida Parole Commission. She said the flow of new applications has accelerated.

"The applications are increasing, because we have made it more accessible," Tillman said. "More people are applying because it's easier to do."

Inmates who leave the state prison system are now given a one-page summary of how to get their civil rights restored.

Bush recommended 40 new workers to process paperwork, but the Legislature gave no new money to the Parole Commission, and the House briefly threatened to abolish the agency last spring.

The ACLU called the rule changes "minor but positive."

"Those changes fell far short of what the ACLU and other groups have been asking for," said Courtenay Strickland, director of the ACLU of Florida Voting Rights Project in Miami. "The governor and Cabinet can give those rights back or not, and for no reason at all. The right to vote is too precious, and too fundamental to our democracy, to fall within that discretion."

Florida's lifetime ban on civil rights for ex-felons has been in the state Constitution since 1868: "No person convicted of a felony, or adjudicated in this or any other state to be mentally incompetent, shall be qualified to vote or hold office until restoration of civil rights or removal of disability," it states in Article VI, Section 4.

University of Minnesota sociologist Christopher Uggen, hired as an expert by the Johnson vs. Bush plaintiffs, estimated that 28 percent of the African-American voting age population was disenfranchised in 2000, a total that included blacks serving prison sentences and those who completed their sentences.

After being turned down by the Supreme Court on Monday, Strickland and others seeking automatic restoration of civil rights for ex-felons will pursue two other options: the Legislature and the ballot initiative process.

A proposed constitutional amendment to restore felons' civil rights, sponsored by Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, passed two Senate committees a year ago but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden. Supporters plan to file similar legislation in 2006.

In the ballot initiative arena, a proposal has been launched by the Committee to Restore Voter Dignity, headed by Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale. But the group's fundraising has been dormant for two years and it must collect 611,000 valid voter signatures to get its proposal on the general election ballot in November 2006.

--Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified November 15, 2005, 03:00:33]


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