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November 16, 2005 - St. Petersburg Times (FL)

Editorial: Civil Rights Denied

Florida's Denial Of Rights To Former Felons Is Indefensible. It Deserved To Be Reviewed By The U.S. Supreme Court

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The first civil rights case to reach the Supreme Court under new Chief Justice John Roberts has ended deplorably. Although the court did not formally uphold Florida's lifetime voting ban on former felons, its refusal to hear the appeal of Johnson vs. Bush has the same effect for the foreseeable future. It is disheartening that even among the six liberal and moderate justices there were not the four votes to grant review or so much as one dissent.

With an estimated 600,000 people denied the vote no matter how fully they paid their debts to society or how honorably they have lived thereafter, the Florida situation is the nation's largest and most indefensible denial of civil rights since a Congress aroused by Alabama's brutality to demonstrators at the Selma bridge passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It is disingenuous for Gov. Jeb Bush to assert that he and the Pardon Board have a "fair process" for granting dispensations. If it were fair in fact as well as fancy, there would not be some 9,600 people still on the waiting list and they would not have to spend so many years there.

The much greater scandal is the many tens of thousands who never apply because they do not know that they can or have heard that it is futile. Where 14 states once maintained lifetime bans, there are now only Florida, Kentucky and Virginia.

It is true that Bush asked for money, which the Legislature denied, to process applications faster and that he and the Cabinet have simplified the rules to make restoration automatic for many ex-offenders whose crimes were relatively minor. But the list of exceptions requiring hearings before the governor and Cabinet is so comprehensive that it effectively swallows the rules.

Drug trafficking, for example, is not an inherently violent crime, and yet it is one of the exclusions.

Although the Constitution declares only voting rights to be forfeit upon a felony conviction - this was proposed in essentially its present form by a post-Reconstruction Legislature mindful of its utility against former slaves - Florida laws have since piled on the denial of access to most licensed professions as well as the right to possess firearms.

Thus in Florida punishment for crime is as perpetual and remorseless as that which Victor Hugo described in Les Miserables. One example among many: Senate Majority Leader Alex J. Villalobos, R-Miami, tells of a former client who had completed his education and become a registered nurse before the state uncovered his conviction and put him out of work.

Villalobos is one of a growing number of legislators who favor amending the Constitution to facilitate restoration of civil rights for many more people, but he says he doesn't think it belongs on next year's ballot because of other issues already there, including the Legislature's proposal to extend its term limits from eight years to 12. But a cluttered ballot would be a problem in any election year.

Voting rights need to be addressed in 2006 lest there be yet another presidential election in which the Florida ban is accused of favoring the Republicans.

"It's not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. I think its a fairness issue," says Sen. Steven Wise, R-Jacksonville, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee.

It would behoove all of his colleagues to see it that way.

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