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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Describing an arbitrary system that gives “unfettered discretion” to the governor and state Cabinet members, a federal judge Thursday ruled that Florida’s process for restoring the voting rights of ex-felons is unconstitutional.

“Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in a 43-page ruling. “To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration. Until that moment (if it ever comes), these citizens cannot legally vote for presidents, governors, senators, representatives, mayors, or school-board members.”

Walker’s ruling, in a case filed last year by the voting-rights group Fair Elections Legal Network, was a bombshell in an issue that has long been controversial in Florida. It also comes just months before voters will cast ballots on a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the voting rights of most felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution.

The judge did not decide how the rights-restoration process should change and gave the plaintiffs and the state until Feb. 12 to file briefs on the issue.

But Gov. Rick Scott’s office issued a statement late Thursday indicating it will continue a legal battle over the issue. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis serve as the state’s clemency board that determines whether felons’ rights should be restored.

“The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons’ rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors,” John Tupps, a Scott spokesman, said in the statement. “The process is outlined in Florida’s Constitution, and today’s ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court.

“The governor believes that convicted felons should show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities. While we are reviewing today’s ruling, we will continue to defend this process in the court.”

Critics of the rights-restoration process have compared it to post-Civil War Jim Crow policies designed to keep blacks from casting ballots. Under the state’s system, ex-felons must wait five or seven years after finishing their sentences — including probation, parole and fines — before they can apply to have their rights restored, according to Walker’s ruling.

An application, however, does not guarantee that the clemency board will agree to restore voting rights. In his ruling, Walker focused heavily on what he saw as the arbitrariness of the system, which he ruled violated First Amendment rights and equal-protection rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

“Here, plaintiffs’ protected expressive and associational activities are at risk of viewpoint discrimination because the (clemency) board may defer restoration of rights for years — or forever,” Walker wrote. “Defendants (the state) cannot — whether arbitrarily or motivated by political, racial, or religious bias — kick the can down the road for so long that they violate former felons’ rights to free association and free expression without offending the Constitution.”

Jon Sherman, senior counsel at Fair Elections Legal Network, said in a prepared statement that the ruling “held in no uncertain terms that a state cannot subject U.S. citizens’ voting rights to the limitless power of government officials.”

“Today a federal court said what so many Floridians have known for so long — that the state’s arbitrary restoration process, which forces former felons to beg for their right to vote, violates the oldest and most basic principles of our democracy,” Sherman said.

The ruling came after state elections officials last month formally placed on the November ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would lead to automatic restoration of rights for ex-felons, though the amendment would not apply to murderers and sex offenders. The initiative has been spearheaded by the group Floridians for a Fair Democracy.

The News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders contributed to this report.

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