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Amendment 4 could invalidate rights restoration lawsuit


A longstanding legal fight about Florida's clemency process could be wrapping up soon.

Attorneys filed a brief Wednesday explaining how the Nov. 6 passage of Amendment 4, which requires the state to restore the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences, will likely nullify the federal lawsuit. 

The lawsuit, initially filed in March 2017, claims Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet made it harder than necessary for felons to get their rights restored. 

“There is no longer any live controversy as to claims … attacking the arbitrariness of Florida’s soon-to-be-former restoration scheme,” the brief said.  “Other federal constitutional issues may later develop depending on how the courts interpret Amendment 4 and how Florida officials implement it, but those are not raised by the claims in this appeal.”

For the past seven years, felons have had to wait five years after completing their sentence to even apply to have their voting rights restored. Felons must then appeal to the state clemency board for a hearing, which only happens four times a year. The current process can take more than 10 years to complete and because of the restrictive laws, Florida barred more former felons than any other state.

The current process came out of a vote in 2011, which took down a system of voting rights restoration brought about by Charlie Christ, Scott's predecessor.

The movement to reform the state’s notoriously strict restoration process was championed by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a bipartisan group led by convicted felons. The group collected more than 800,000 signatures to qualify Amendment 4 for the 2018 ballot.

Approval of the amendment ends Florida’s outlier status as the state with the most people permanently barred from voting — only two other states ban felons from the polls for life.

About 1.5 million Floridians have been permanently disenfranchised because of felony convictions.

While Amendment 4's language was written in a way that advocates say is self-implementing, it's still unclear whether the Legislature should do anything.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton told reporters that he has turned the question over to Sen. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala who leads the Senate's committee on ethics and elections.

Galvano also said he's tasked his criminal justice committee chair with considering whether the Legislature needs to take action.

"It may be there is nothing we need to do, and it just moves forward," Galvano told the Herald/Times last week. 

Baxley, whose elections committee is likely to consider an Amendment 4-related bill, also said he doesn't know whether any legislation would be necessary, adding that if it is, it shouldn't hold back any felons from registering to vote.

In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis said he expects lawmakers to implement the law in a bill that he could then sign. 

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.