Judge Withdraws from Lawsuit Over Felon Voting

Judge Withdraws from Lawsuit Over Felon Voting

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

A federal judge who has routinely ruled against the state in election-related lawsuits has withdrawn from overseeing a challenge to a new state statute aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to Floridians convicted of felonies.

U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker on Wednesday filed an order disqualifying himself from the case, saying his wife works for the same law firm as an attorney who recently signed up to represent two of the defendants, including Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

George Meros of Holland & Knight LLP filed a notice with the court Tuesday, saying he would represent Lee and Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci. Walker’s wife, Karen, also works for the firm.

In his order Wednesday, Walker, who serves as the chief judge of Florida’s Northern District, hinted that the move to hire Meros may have been intended to force Walker off the case, writing that “the conduct at issue here is deeply troubling.”

Walker pointed to a 2015 lawsuit in which defendants hired Holland & Knight mid-way through the judicial proceedings. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit accused the defendants of “judge shopping” by intentionally hiring a lawyer from the firm where Walker’s wife worked so another judge would be assigned to the case. Walker did not recuse himself, but asked for an opinion from another judge in the matter.

Senior District Judge Maurice Paul instead disqualified Holland & Knight from the case, allowing Walker to remain in charge of a contentious legal battle over a fuel surcharge fee being charged by a waste removal company.

In his April 2016 decision keeping Walker as the judge in the case, Paul wrote that Holland & Knight “should be disqualified because of the potential for manipulation of the judicial system, the lack of need by defendants for this particular counsel, and the potential delay and loss of judicial activity,” a finding Walker referred to in Wednesday’s order.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals “has outlined a process to differentiate legitimate judicial recusal necessary under federal law from frivolous recusals brought on by unscrupulous shenanigans,” Walker wrote.

While Walker asked another judge to weigh in on his recusal in the fuel surcharge case, the federal judge said he “will not employ that process” now.

“Although the conduct at issue is deeply troubling, I am relieved of those concerns by confidence in my collegues on this court to preside over the remainder of this case and judge it fairly and wisely,” he wrote.

The circumstances surrounding the current lawsuit differ from those in the fuel surcharge case in several ways.

The elections complaint, comprised of four lawsuits consolidated by Walker into a single case earlier this month, was filed less than three weeks ago. Meros has represented numerous Republican legislative leaders, and the lawyer also represented the Florida House during court battles over redistricting several years ago.

The elections lawsuit, which has been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, is centered on provisions in a new law that went into effect July 1.

A number of plaintiffs — represented by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund — are challenging parts of the law that will require Floridians convicted of felonies to pay financial obligations related to their crimes before they are eligible to have voting rights restored.

The plaintiffs allege the legislation unconstitutionally “creates two classes of citizens,” depending on their ability to pay financial obligations that many don’t even know about.

13 Responses to "Judge Withdraws from Lawsuit Over Felon Voting"

  1. The advocates for Amendment Four did a sorry job. They failed to draft it properly to specifically exclude fines, costs and other penalties. They dropped the ball and drafted language they THOUGHT meant just incarceration. They convinced the voters that was the case. Unfortunately for them, that was incorrect. They lost under the law, so they are trying to make it a racial issue, hoping that will swing the court.

  2. A factor most are missing, that I believe should be one of the most important pieces to the puzzle, is the victims rights?? Who’s advocating for them? Most of the time, the victim is the only truly innocent party to this process. Often times, restitution goes to pay the victim, or the estate of the victim, for their loss. Unfortunately, it is often way lopsided in the convicts favor, giving them years to pay a small amount of restitution not helping the victim much. I also think it is extremely naive to think that sex offenders and murders will not get to vote under this system. The felonious act of killing a person or sexually assaulting a person very often gets plead down to a lesser crime for a number of reasons. Yes , I understand the title “conviction.” But the system has overwhelmingly tilted to favor the one who chose to engage in criminal behavior over the victims or soon to be victims. Although I believe the best system on the planet, we have allowed our criminal justice system to play in favor of the criminal element, giving them more rights then the victims, making crime pay. Our system was designed that the punishment outweigh the crime to deter criminal behavior. This is just another step in defeating the intention of our criminal justice system weakening it in favor of giving a convicted criminal something they knew, or should of known, was part of their punishment and once again adding to crime paying. Crime rate is high because punishments don’t exist very often, or just don’t deter the crime. I am all about forgiveness, second chances and giving a hand up, but I am also about protecting the most vulnerable. If you want crime to drastically decrease, if you want to have less victims, make the punishment outweigh the crime, make it fair and impartial and to where it can not be manipulated and crime rate will plunged as soon as it becomes known the consequences are real.
    “Don’t do the crime if you can’t pay the time!”

  3. We voted on their ability to vote after they’ve made restitution. If you owe money, that’s part of restitution. It passed, you can’t change it after we voted. Just like the left, though, people give them an inch and they want a 1,000 miles.

  4. In response to Pretty Petty, I ask, non-sarcastically, are being delinquent in tax payments, delinquent in child support, or, delinquent in student loan payments, felonies?

    Without formal charges being filed, trial, or pleading-out-to or adjudication of guilt to a felony charge, and sentencing, under the law, by a judge, a person is not a convicted felon.

    I am grateful that a real attempt has been made to move the conversation forward, and for the sake of civility, let us all in “flyover America”, agree to keep doing so in a manner that restores constructive discourse on any of the myriad of issues that we face.

    A conviction of an individual on a felony charge removes their civil rights. What follows is sentencing, the terms of which must be completed. Upon satisfying ALL of the sentence requirements, our new constitutional amendment stipulates civil rights being restored to the convicted individual, again, post-completion of sentence requirements.

    The notion that financial restitution can be ignored can be extrapolated into the notion that incarceration is also optional when ordered by a judge at sentencing.

    So, Pretty Petty, not much of a debate, but that’s the way I feel.

    For the record, I did vote against this amendment as I feel restoration of civil rights to felons ought to have remained within the purview of our state executive branch, as I do not agree with the voting majority this past election that a persons character, and likelihood to carry-on in society in a lawful and honorable fashion, can be fairly determined by completion of sentence requirements alone. For the convicted felon, the final step to restoration of voting rights was to appeal to and appear before our governor, as I feel it ought to have remained. (I admit to a huge lack of procedural knowledge here, enlighten me if needed. I do clearly recall that process being described as limited, which maybe could have been a bit more user-friendly for the person rebuilding their life post-conviction.) My vote being in the minority still allows for me to participate in the process going forward. As an aside, allow me to share that I find it helpful to myself that I swore-off moral relativism in all conversations. 1980-ish.

    1. I understand your point, but how does paying money make the ex-con more likely to be a better citizen if paying taxes owed has no bearing on being a good citizen? I feel serving the time is plenty enough punishment on the individual. By refusing them the vote, we condone taxation without representation. I am certain, the ex-cons would’ve chosen to just do another month rather than to have their vote infringed upon over money. I saw a judge offer a defendant the opportunity to do 10 days in jail in lieu of paying his large fine. The defendant told the judge he was unable to find work due to his background and he didn’t have any other way to pay the court’s fines. The judge felt his sincerity and offered him 10 days, and the man gladly accepted. We can pretend like finding a job is simple for an ex-con, but it isn’t. Some of the fines are large and realistically can’t be paid down with min wage jobs or daily labor. The way this law is set up is akin to a poll tax or a literacy test from years past that I think we all want to put behind us. What better way to integrate ex-cons into society than to give them back their voices? If they’re out of prison, they’re paying sales tax at the very minimum and have skin in the game. Continuously treating them like they’re less than does nothing for their morale and may encourage them to return to the underworld. Also, the type of citizens who are delinquent in taxes are also criminals, in my opinion and the federal governement’s opinion. They also take from society and over burden the rest of us. How are they any more qualified to vote? The IRS doesn’t prosecute small dollar tax evasion, but it is still a crime.

  5. how is owing court costs any different than owing taxes? both are benefitting the public, yet tax delinquents can vote no problem. I say what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…anyone owing taxes, child support, or delinquent in student loan payments should be denied the vote as well. Debate me.

  6. The only way to avoid court ordered restitution and fees is to take each and every case back in front of a leftist Judge and ask that Judge to cheat family’s, Counties, Cities and The State out of their entitlement to be made whole by the actions of a criminal.
    What if it were your son or daughter that had their young life snuffed out by a criminal…would you feel some kind of way about having restitution waived so some @hole can vote?
    Restitution and fees are an inseparable part of the court order…pay up…then as the constitutional amendment allows you become able to vote.
    What’s so hard to understand about that?????

  7. “depending on their ability to pay financial obligations that many don’t even know about.” WHAT? I am SURE they were ALL Told if they had to pay ANYTHING. It’s called “Restitution” and “Court Costs”, THAT is told to them at Sentencing.

  8. This sure is a LOT of trouble. The law states once the Sentence is over, they can Vote. If the Sentence includes Probation, Fee’s, Fine’s and Cost’s to be paid then that’s what has to happen before they can Vote and THAT’S how it SHOULD BE. Now, just out of curiosity, of all the blacks that are Legally ABLE to Vote, how many of them actually DO Vote?

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