On April 1 a federal appeals court issued a ruling that squashed Gov. Rick Scott’s politically driven, error-riddled 2012 “voter purge.” This decision underscored what nearly every political observer already knew: Scott’s effort to purge the rolls was not only flawed, but also illegal.
The National Voter Registration Act clearly prohibits any program that purges voters from the rolls 90 days before an election. This provision exists to prevent eligible voters from being removed from voting rolls with no time to fix the government’s mistake.
But that didn’t stop Scott and his hand-picked Secretary of State Ken Detzner from launching a statewide voter purge just 55 days before the November 2012 elections.
Juxtapose the appeals court voter purge ruling with the disastrous McCutcheon v. FEC Supreme Court decision the very next day. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority struck down the overall limit on how much an individual donor can contribute to political candidates, campaigns and PACs (Political Action Committees), eviscerating our already weakened campaign finance laws.
Now super-wealthy donors like the Koch Brothers can spend untold millions of dollars spread across a limitless amount of political campaigns whenever they want.
This decision erodes our democracy by allowing even more unbridled influence-buying and corruption of the political process by the rich and powerful. As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his fiery dissent, “If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate.”
So on one hand, a federal appeals court protected Floridians’ right to vote when it was threatened by Scott’s partisan meddling, and on the other hand, the Roberts Supreme Court stacked the deck against the will of the people by awarding an even more disproportionate amount of influence to the very wealthy.
The two rulings demonstrate the tremendous impact our federal court system has on our democracy, and the need for fair and balanced judges.
Unfortunately, it’s not just out-of-touch decisions like McCutcheon that threaten our democracy. There’s also the federal judicial vacancy crises. At the moment, there are more than 195 million people — more than 60 percent of the U.S. population — living in a community with a federal courtroom vacancy. Here in Florida, there are two vacancies in the Middle District Court and three in the Southern District Court.
These vacancies affect all citizens because they create a backlog of cases that undermines our system of justice and makes it difficult for many Americans to have their case heard in a timely manner. The judicial vacancy crisis has other, lesser known impacts as well.
The appeals court ruling that found Gov. Scott’s “voter purge” was illegal would have been unanimous, but for the dissenting opinion of Judge Richard Suhrheinrich. Suhrheinrich is an ultra-conservative judge appointed by President Reagan to the 6th Circuit (which serves Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee). He was never appointed to the 11th Circuit that oversees Florida, but because we have so many vacancies, we’re now reliant on outside judges to hear critical cases.
It’s nonsensical to have judges appointed to courts in other regions of the country ruling on cases before a Florida court. Since these judges are in effect making law for the people that live in Florida, shouldn’t they have been appointed to the court with jurisdiction over Florida to begin with and actually be from our state or region of the country?
No matter the issue — marriage equality, voting rights, employment discrimination, environmental regulation, health care, immigration — our federal judiciary plays an important role in the lives of hardworking Americans. As these two recent decisions illustrate, we need to quickly fill empty judicial seats with qualified judges. The health of our democracy depends on it.
Mark Ferrulo is the executive director of Progress Florida, a statewide progressive advocacy organization. Column courtesy of Context Florida.