WASHINGTON - November 14 - The United States Supreme Court today declined to review a case challenging Florida’s 137-year-old ban on voting by people with felony convictions. The decision forecloses all judicial redress of a discriminatory policy that bars more than 600,000 people from the polls. The lawsuit, Johnson v. Bush, sought to restore the voting rights of working, tax-paying members of their communities who have fully served their criminal sentences but remain barred from the polls, almost always for life. Under the controlling lower court decisions, plaintiffs were denied the opportunity to prove at trial that the Florida law violates the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.
“This is a sad day for our democracy,” said Catherine Weiss, associate counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which is lead counsel in Johnson v. Bush. “The Court has not only missed an opportunity to right a great historic injustice, it has shut the courthouse door in the face of hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised citizens.”
“We are deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari,” said Courtenay Strickland, chair of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “Florida’s 19th century voting ban has created a 21st century civil rights crisis in our state. One in 10 African-Americans is barred from voting under this ban. But if the Court won’t stand up for what is right, the people will. We intend to make sure that Florida Legislature and the electorate move forward to restore the rights the Supreme Court turned its back on today.”
While the Supreme Court’s decision ended the lawsuit challenging Florida’s permanent disenfranchisement policy, the battle is not over. Concerned Floridians are working to place voting rights restoration on the statewide ballot for approval by the voters.
Across the nation and throughout the world, the trend has been towards restoring rights to people with criminal convictions. In the last year alone, Nebraska and Iowa ended their permanent disenfranchisement policies, and the Rhode Island legislature sent to the 2006 ballot a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights immediately following incarceration. Internationally, the European Court of Human Rights recently recognized the right to vote as a human right that should be barred only under extraordinary circumstances and never as blanket policy. The European Court’s move prompted the New York Times to call for “a full hearing” on the issue in the United States—an invitation the Supreme Court declined today.
The voting ban, part of Florida’s 1868 constitution, bars people like Jau’dohn Hicks from the most basic form of political participation. Mr. Hicks is a named Plaintiff in the case. He was released from prison in 1991 and has since completed training as both a firefighter and an emergency medical technician, but he has not regained his rights. “I want to vote to show my three daughters that I have put my mistakes behind me and become a contributing member of our community. I work, I pay taxes, I’m raising my children—I want my voice back. I am shocked by the Court’s action today because now I have no hope that the courts will help me win back the rights that have been unjustly stripped from me. And the courts used to be the champions of people like me.”
Said Marian Bacon White, President of the 11th Episcopal District Lay Organization of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, “We must welcome back into our communities people who have completed their criminal sentences and are trying to rebuild their lives. We should encourage their participation in all aspects of life—religious, social, economic, and political. Voting is one vital way that a person may reclaim his place among us.”
Today’s action by the Supreme Court denying certiorari in Johnson v. Bush leaves in place a decision by the full Federal Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that foreclosed a challenge under the Voting Rights Act and upheld the constitutionality of Florida’s voting ban.
The Brennan Center led a team of plaintiffs’ counsel that also included Debevoise & Plimpton, LLP; Morrison & Foerster; LLP, UNC School of Law Center for Civil Rights; Florida Justice Institute; James K. Green, PA; and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
To visit the Johnson v. Bush page for filings, summaries, and other information, click here.