Constitution panel could look for clemency fix - Florida Politics

Constitution panel could look for clemency fix

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission may wade into the state’s process for restoring voting rights of ex-felons, after a federal judge ruled the current clemency process is unconstitutional.

Members of the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee unanimously agreed Friday to explore ways to consider the issue, either through additional committee meetings or by amending a proposal when the full commission meets in March.

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On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker found the current process – in which ex-felons must wait years to have their clemency cases considered and only a small number are successful in getting rights restored – to be arbitrary and unconstitutional. He also asked the state and lawyers who challenged the system to file plans to resolve the problem by Feb. 12.

“I don’t know if there is anything we can do, should do, where we would go from here, et cetera,” said Commissioner Hank Coxe, a Jacksonville lawyer who heads the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee. “But we’re here, it just happened and so we have it.”

Commissioner Sherry Plymale of Palm City said she and other members of the committee have an understanding of the problems in the current system, after they participated in an in-depth review of the clemency process.

“We were unhappy particularly with the number of people that are in the queue, which was thousands,” Plymale said. “I felt all along that we needed to find an opportunity to work on this.”

As of Oct. 1, the state had a backlog of 10,377 cases in which ex-felons are seeking to have civil rights restored, including the right to vote, according to commission analysts.

In Walker’s order, the federal judge noted that 154,000 Floridians had their rights restored under former Gov. Charlie Crist, who set up a process in which cases could be reviewed by the state parole commission.

But Gov. Rick Scott changed that policy after he took office in 2011, leaving the rights-restoration decisions up to him and the three members of the state Cabinet, although the governor has sole power to reject any application.

Since that time, only 3,000 applications have been granted, with Walker noting the process has resulted in nearly 1.7 million Floridians being denied the right to vote, including more than one out of every five voting-age African-American residents.

“I do think we owe it to an awful lot of people in Florida to have this process work a lot better than it does,” Plymale said. “Even if they don’t want to restore rights, OK. But they’re not even getting a hearing, which is really not fair.”

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is a member of the ethics and election panel, expressed regret that lawmakers did not address the issue during his 10 years in the Legislature.

“We didn’t do what perhaps we could or should have done if we had known then what we know now,” Gaetz said. “It’s obvious that the clemency process in our state is not only broken but it’s scandalously broken.”

The commission considered several proposals aimed at automatically restoring voting rights for ex-felons. But those proposals were withdrawn when the political committee Floridians for a Fair Democracy obtained enough petition signatures to place an initiative, known as Amendment 4, on the fall ballot. That amendment would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, excluding those convicted for murder or sexual offenses.

As commissioners debated the ex-felon proposals, several members raised the possibility of “ballot confusion” if the commission placed a measure on the 2018 general election ballot in addition to Amendment 4.

Coxe, the chairman of the ethics and elections panel, said if the commission now takes up a proposal, he expects it to be focused on the clemency process rather than on the automatic restoration of voting rights.

“I’m not concerned about ballot confusion if one deals with clemency and it clearly does,” Coxe said.

Gaetz said he expects Amendment 4 to fail to gain the required 60 percent support from voters because it is “too broad.” While it excludes murderers and sex offenders, it would automatically restore rights to other felons who have committed serious crimes, such as kidnapping or carjacking.

He said he would not like to see competing proposals on the ballot, “but I think that we should not just give up on the opportunity to fix the clemency process even if we can’t fix the broader issue because of the way it is drawn so expansively.”

The commission, which meets every 20 years, has the unique ability to place constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot. Ballot measures must be supported by at least 60 percent of voters to be enacted.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Lloyd Dunkelberger is a Tallahassee-based political reporter and columnist; he most recently served as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

1 Comment


    JAMES MICHAEL HAND, et alia,


    v. Case No. 4:17cv128-MW/CAS

    RICK SCOTT, in his official capacity
    as Governor of Florida and member of
    the State of Florida’s Executive
    Clemency Board, et alia,



    COMES NOW John B. Thompson (hereinafter Thompson), who moves this honorable court for leave to file an amicus curiae brief herein, prior to February 18, 2018, stating:
    1. Thompson practiced law in the State of Florida for thirty-two years, having previous served as amicus curiae in the federal court case of Skyywalker Records v. Sheriff Nick Navarro, 739 F. Supp. 578 (1990).
    2. Ten years ago, Thompson was permanently disbarred from the practice of law by the State of Florida for appearing on CBS’ 60 Minutes. The merits of that disbarment are irrelevant to this matter now before this Court, except to note that the undersigned knows what it is like to be stripped of certain rights and privileges with absolutely no legal remedy for that loss. He is thus empathetically as one with plaintiffs herein.
    3. Because of that empathy, the undersigned has striven to turn the lemons of his disbarment into lemonade. For the past three years, Thompson has taught Civics in the Florida prison system. Why? Because felons are citizens who recidivism is lessened when they understand and act upon not only their rights but their duties as citizens. As President Obama said in another context: It is helpful to convince folks that they have skin in the game. Restoring the right to vote gives a felon skin in the game.
    4. Attached hereto as Exhibit A is an article pertaining to the undersigned’s Civics class at Moore Haven Correctional Facility. As a teacher Thompson has heard incarcerated felons’ illuminating views on re-enfranchisement.
    5. Also attached hereto, as Exhibit B, is just one letter the undersigned wrote to Governor Scott and the Clemency Board which they chose to ignore. This Court’s welcome ruling as to felon re-enfranchisement cannot be similarly ignored.
    6. Also attached hereto, as Exhibit C, is Thompson’s recent letter to the editor published by the New York Times in response to its editorial about Florida’s shameful permanent disenfranchisement of felons. All of these attachments hereto are submitted not for any vain glorious reason but rather in an attempt to persuade this Court that the undersigned knows something about this issue and that the Court, it is humbly suggested, may benefit from the undersigned’s and his pupils’ perspectives on this issue.
    7. Additionally, Thompson, as a graduate of a respected Christian seminary after his disbarment should like to share with this Court some of the historical and Judeo Christian Biblical underpinnings supportive of the notion of felon re-enfranchisement. Any nation or state or government official that does not provide for restoration of civil rights has lost its right to assert as true its Bible-based faith, since forgiveness, mercy, grace, and rehabilitation are core Biblical principles.
    8. Given the understandable shortness of time between this Court’s recent ruling and the February 18 deadline, Thompson has not had the time to draft and thus tender with this motion his amicus curiae brief, but he will be able to timely do so if amicus status is graciously granted by this honorable court.
    I HEREBY CERTIFY that copies hereof have been provided this day, February 3, 2018, to all record counsel herein by electronic means.

    John B. Thompson, Former FB #231665
    5721 Riviera Drive
    Coral Gables, Florida 33146
    Phones: land 305-666-4366, cell 305-588-3005

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