Last week, a federal appeals court stayed a previously discussed decision by a Tallahassee Florida judge to preempt the Florida constitutional process by inventing federal constitutional objections to Florida’s system for restoring felons’ civil rights. Because this opinion ran sharply athwart settled constitutional law, its chief effect was to change the optics of a Florida constitutional amendment expected on the ballot in November. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the trial court’s attempt to legislate from the bench and ensured that any changes to current law will be orderly and only through the democratic process.
The trial court’s implicit holding that reinstatement of felons’ right to vote is an entitlement rather than an act of mercy is bizarre when placed within its historical context. At common law, the term “felony” denoted an offense for which the convicted would either be executed or ousted from his property. In either event, he would be ineligible to vote. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in the wake of reconstruction to secure civil rights for all, specifically contemplated that felons would forfeit their right to vote along with their freedom. All felons are warned of this consequence during plea and/or sentencing.
Article IV, Section 8 of the Florida Constitution provides a mechanism to restore civil rights to felons. Because this process requires an individualized assessment, discretion is vested in our democratically elected officials to determine which felons are sufficiently rehabilitated to exercise this weighty power. The federal trial court purported to usurp this power and supervise the Florida Cabinet in exercising this constitutional duty despite admitting its lack of expertise.
This office has represented many convicted felons and routinely attempts to reduce, mitigate, or avoid punishment. However, no criminal defense client has ever sought legal services because he made good choices. Exercise of the vote impacts the lives of millions of other people. Convicted felons also lose their (constitutionally enumerated) right to own firearms upon conviction. Few would argue that this right should be restored automatically without an individualized assessment. The vote should be treated with similar care.
This shameless attempt to legislate from the bench, and the correction of that abuse by the 11th Circuit, underscores the vital work of Governor Scott and President Trump in selecting humble judges who will interpret the law without imposing their will.