By Steve Bousquet for Tampa Bay Times

TALLAHASSEE — The state of Florida routinely violates the constitutional rights of its citizens by permanently revoking the “fundamental right” to vote for anyone convicted of a felony, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the Florida “scheme” of restoring voting rights unfairly relies on the personal support of the governor for citizens to regain the right to vote. In a strongly-worded ruling, he called the state’s defense of voter disenfranchisement “nonsensical,” a withering criticism of Gov. Rick Scott, the lead defendant in the case.

“Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony,” Walker wrote. “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 … The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”

Read Mark Walker’s decision here

Walker wrote: “If any one of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles. No more. When the risk of state-sanctioned viewpoint discrimination skulks near the franchise, it is the province and duty of this Court to excise such potential bias from infecting the clemency process.”

The judge condemned a system that he said gives “unfettered discretion” to four partisan politicians, and cited as proof a comment Scott made at one hearing when he said: “We can do whatever we want.”

Scott’s office issued a statement late Thursday, hinting at an appeal.

“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,” said a statement attributed to Scott’s communications director, John Tupps. “The process is outlined in Florida’s Constitution, and today’s ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court.”

The decision is by far the greatest legal setback for Scott, a two-term Republican governor who’s expected to run for the U.S. Senate.

Scott was the principal architect of the current system that requires all felons to wait at least five years after they complete their sentences, serve probation and pay all restitution, to apply for right to vote and other civil rights.

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