Attorney General Pam Bondi had nothing to say to the Florida Supreme Court Monday, and for people working to restore the right to vote to convicted felons, that was welcome news.
The court must decide whether a ballot initiative deals with only one subject and whether the title and summary that voters will see on the ballot fairly describes the amendment. This proposal, which could go before voters in 2018, would restore the voting rights of convicted felons after they have completed their sentences, including probation, and it would not apply to people convicted of sexual battery or murder.
Bondi's solicitor general, Amit Agarwal, stood before Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, who had one simple question: "Is the attorney general taking a position?"
"No, your honor," Agarwal replied. That left the hearing to Jon Mills, the former House speaker from Gainesville and UF law school dean, who defended the proposal and seemed to get a sympathetic ear from Justice Barbara Pariente, who observed: "This is really no different than what most other states have."
Florida is one of three states that permanently revokes the voting rights of convicted felons unless they are restored by a four-member state clemency board, made up of Gov. Rick Scott and the three Cabinet members, one of whom is Bondi. She and Scott championed a policy shift in 2011 that requires convicted felons in Florida to wait for at least five years after completing their sentences before they can apply for clemency, a process that can take many years. The number of clemency cases decided by the Scott-era clemency board has declined substantially from when Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush were in office.
Desmond Meade of Orlando is one of those who still can't vote, even after completing his sentence and getting his law degree at Florida International University. Meade, 48 (left), is a leader of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the Clearwater-based group directing the statewide petition drive to get the voting rights question on the ballot. The group's campaign is called Say Yes to Second Chances.
Meade, who has worked to collect enough petition signatures from voters to trigger Monday's court hearing, told reporters that Bondi's official neutrality was "a wonderful thing."
"This is rooted in fairness," Meade said. "Once a person has served their time and paid their debt to society, they should be given an opportunity to have their voices heard ... But Florida is an outlier."
Others involved in the Second Chances campaign are the Rev. Dr. Allison deFoor, a prison chaplain and former Monroe County sheriff, and David Johnson, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. He cited a study by the Florida Commission on Offender Review that found that people who got their right to vote restored were much less likely to commit another crime than those who didn't.
"People who are back in society and participating in democracy generally make better citizens, regardless of how they vote," Johnson said.