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The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered a trial for Florida convicts seeking to restore their civil rights, reversing a decision by U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who had dismissed the case. In a Dec. 19 opinion that reviews the history of Sunshine State’s constitution, the 11th Circuit said that there is evidence that the state’s felon disenfranchisement law discriminated against blacks when it was enacted and that discrimination may persist to this day. Thomas Johnson, et al. v. Governor of the State of Florida, et al. A racist boast by a white delegate to the 1868 Constitutional Convention that he kept blacks from taking over the state helped convince the federal appeals court that the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. By a 2-1 vote, the appeals court partially reversed summary judgment in favor of Gov. Jeb Bush, his cabinet and the election supervisors in the state’s 67 counties. The class action suit filed by eight ex-felons could affect more than a half-million people currently denied the right to vote. The court affirmed U.S. Southern District of Florida Judge James Lawrence King’s order dismissing claims that denying clemency to ex-felons who haven’t paid court-ordered restitution violates laws against poll taxes. But it remanded equal protection and voting rights claims for trial. “We conclude that an original discriminatory purpose behind Florida’s felon disenfranchisement provision establishes an equal protection violation that persists with the provision unless it is subsequently reenacted on the basis of an independent, nondiscriminatory purpose,” Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote for the majority. Citing evidence offered by the plaintiffs, Barkett noted that 10.5 percent of voting-age African-Americans cannot vote because they are ex-felons, while 4.4 percent of voting-age nonblacks are barred because of felony convictions. The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., criminal justice think tank, reports that 13 percent of African-American men are unable to vote nationally because of felon disenfranchisement laws. Barkett cited other evidence showing blacks are convicted of felonies at rates disproportionate to arrest rates that show involvement in criminal activities is not race-related. Florida is one of four remaining states to bar first-time felons from voting unless they receive clemency and have their rights restored. Three states have loosened or lifted their bans in recent months. In Florida, felons who have completed their sentences lose the right to vote, cannot serve on juries, hold public office or qualify for some state occupational licenses. To regain these rights, they must apply to the Board of Executive Clemency, which consists of the governor and his cabinet. The process can take several years. In her dissent, Judge Phyllis A. Kravitch said the reversal is wrong because the 14th Amendment specifically allows states to forbid convicted felons from voting. She agreed with the majority affirming King’s dismissal of a claim that denying clemency to those ex-felons who haven’t paid their court-ordered restitution violates laws against poll taxes.

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