The legal dispute over Florida’s system for restoring the civil rights of convicted felons once again provides us the opportunity to provide a small civics lesson.
Last week, Gov. Rick Scott called an emergency meeting of top state officials after U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker ruled that Florida’s method of deciding whether to restore the rights of a convicted felon is unconstitutional because it is too arbitrary. In brief, convicted felons, after completing their sentences, must wait five years before they can ask the Florida Clemency Board, made up of the governor and the state’s attorney general, chief financial officer and commissioner of agriculture and community services, to have their rights, including voting, restored.
Scott, however, cancelled the emergency meeting after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Walker’s order that the state implement a less arbitrary clemency system.
As the Atlanta-based three-judge appeals panel noted in its order, the U.S. Supreme Court held the Florida clemency system to be constitutional in 1969. That doesn’t mean a clemency system that reflected popular sentiment about felons nearly 50 years ago is one most Floridians favor now.
If it’s not, however, it should be the job of the Legislature to change it, not a judge. People who don’t want to wait for lawmakers to act can vote in November to approve a proposed change to the state constitution. Amendment 4 would grant automatic restoration of civil rights to ex-felons. Polling suggests Amendment 4 will garner more than the 60 percent of the vote it needs for approval.
Not everyone likes the slow and considered pace that the doctrine of separation of powers requires. It is, however, the best guarantee against the arbitrary application of government power.