Florida Ex-Cons Hope Judge Will Restore Their Right to Vote

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - A federal judge in Miami is now considering whether to overturn the lifetime voting ban of more than 600,000 ex-felons in Florida. Attorneys for the state insist the ban is legal under the Florida Constitution, but inmates who have sued to regain their voting rights, say the ban violates the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Voting Rights Act.

The ex-cons have targeted Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the State of Florida Clemency Board in their class-action lawsuit. U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King heard arguments in the case late last week and Tuesday, a spokesman for King said a ruling was not expected for at least a couple of weeks.

According to Greg Munson, an attorney for Gov. Bush, "The message of the Florida Constitution is pretty clear: felons are disenfranchised and they lose their civil rights." Another provision allows the governor and (state) cabinet to "restore your civil rights," Munson said.

"If the Florida Constitution were unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution or if it violated federal law, it would be struck down," Munson said. "The U.S. Constitution and federal law trump the Florida Constitution if there is any direct conflict. We don't think there is any conflict."

The lawsuit was initially filed in September 2000.

Nancy Northup of the Brennan Center for the New York University School of Law is the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, who contend they have served their prison time and are "now productive, taxpaying citizens."

"Florida is now denying the voting rights of over 5 percent of its voting age population and 10 percent of African-Americans. Most of these ex-felons were young men when they were convicted," Northup said. "People who now hold jobs, raise families, and become productive members of their communities should not be relegated to second class citizenship."

Lori Outzs Bergen of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is co-counsel in the case. "This litigation is critical to restoring the civil rights of those who have paid their debt to society. Nothing is more fundamental to full participation in our society than the right to vote," she said.

In Florida, convicted felons are indefinitely stripped of their right to vote until they undertake a lengthy application process and are granted restoration of their rights by the governor and the clemency Board.

Florida is one of 13 states that have such laws. Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming are the others.

Nine of the states call for a lifetime voting ban of convicted felons. Arizona and Maryland impose the ban following a second felony conviction. In Tennessee, the ban is applicable only for felony offenses that occurred before 1986. In Washington, the law applies to felons with offenses before 1984.

However, back in April, the Florida Clemency Board together with the state's parole commission shortened and simplified an online version of the form that ex-felons must use to apply for restoring their civil rights, including the right to vote.

The new applications no longer require ex-felons to obtain certified copies of court records and mail copies of the application to the presiding or chief judge and prosecuting attorney.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) applauded the move but felt the state could do more.

"Until civil and voting rights are automatically restored after completion of punishment, we'll keep helping people overcome the barriers that this rights restoration puts in front of them. The new application form may not change the state's unknown criteria by which rights are restored, it just makes it easier to submit an application," said Courtenay Strickland of the Florida ACLU.

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