Court Lets Felons Sue for Right to Vote in Florida

As many as 620,000 disenfranchised felons in Florida may regain their right to vote, thanks to a federal appeals court ruling allowing their class-action suit to proceed.

In a 2-to-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit negated a lower court’s summary ruling that had upheld a Florida law that prohibits felons from voting. Under the panel’s December 19 ruling, the case, Johnson v. Bush, will now return to U.S. District Court in Miami for trial, unless Florida appeals to the full 11th Circuit.

If the felons prevail in this suit, originally filed in September 2000, the traditional practice of denying the franchise to serious criminals could be ruled unconstitutional.

Florida is one of seven states that permanently ban felons from voting unless they receive clemency, according to The Sentencing Project, a liberal group that advocates shorter sentences for some criminals. Seven additional states put some restriction on the right of felons to vote after they have completed their sentences. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia bar criminals from voting while they are in prison.

The plaintiffs argued that the ban on felons voting, embedded in Florida’s 1968 constitution, is discriminatory because it disproportionately affects blacks. The plaintiffs’ brief asserts that in 1998, 9% of voting-age blacks in Florida were ineligible to vote as a result of the law.

The brief blamed this on alleged racism in Florida’s justice system-namely that “African-Americans are convicted at a substantially greater rate than their proportion in the population.”

Asked if criminal laws should also be repealed if they lead to disproportionate imprisonment of blacks, Jessie Allen, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, told HUMAN EVENTS that this case is limited to voting rights. “If one were to pursue that, then one would have to prove constitutional cases against those laws,” said Allen. “And that may indeed be an appropriate action to take. But that’s not the action that this lawsuit is concerned with.”

Political Maneuver

Allen, a representative of the Brennan Center for Justice, said that permanent disenfranchisement is not a fitting punishment for criminals. “Our modern concept of democracy is that voting is a fundamental right,” she said. “It’s something you get to do, not based on a test of your character, but by virtue of your being a citizen in a democracy.”

Appellate Judge Phyllis Kravitch, a Carter appointee, said in dissent that the 14th Amendment specifically allows states to deprive citizens of their franchise as a penalty for “participation in rebellion, or other crime.”

Observers see this case as a partisan effort to help Democrats in Florida. Even the plaintiffs’ brief says: “African-American voters in Florida are politically cohesive.” In the close-fought 2000 presidential election, 93% of black voters in Florida supported Al Gore-who lost the state by just 537 votes.