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Florida's fight over felons' voting rights shifts to Atlanta courtroom

Gov. Rick Scott and his fellow Republicans on the Cabinet will defend the state's process of restoring voting rights to felons in an Atlanta courtroom Wednesday.

Three judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by the Fair Elections Center, a Washington-based voter advocacy group that persuaded a federal judge to strike down the restoration process as unconstitutional in February.

Scott and the Cabinet won a stay of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker's ruling in April, and the appeals court will hear both sides in the case, known as James Michael Hand et al vs. Rick Scott et al, brought by nine people whose voting rights were revoked due to past felony convictions.

Walker ruled that the system violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of freedom of expression and equal protection by giving four state officials, especially the governor, "unfettered discretion" to decide which felons regain their rights and which don't.

READ MORE: Judge strikes down Florida system for restoring felons' rights

Walker ordered that the system be scrapped and replaced with one that had more specific criteria for restoring felons' rights.

But the appeals court granted a stay on April 25, one day before Walker's sweeping order was scheduled to take effect.

"That seems to us to be a tall order," the Atlanta court said of Walker's decision.

In granting a stay, the appeals court said that the state has a "substantial likelihood" of winning on the merits of the case.

The judges who participated in the April stay were Stanley Marcus, William Pryor and Beverly Martin, with Martin writing a partial dissent.

One question is whether the Atlanta court will rule in time to affect the 2018 election in Florida, where an estimated 1.5 million felons are permanently disenfranchised by Florida's clemency system. The deadline to register to vote in the general election is Oct. 9.