Federal Appeals Court Paves Way for Trial on Equal Protection and Voting Rights
(Washington, DC) – In a win for democracy in Florida, a federal appeals court today reversed a district court decision that sought to enforce a law which has disenfranchised more than 600,000 Florida voters, paving the way for a trial on equal protection and voting rights claims.
Filed in September 2000, Johnson v. Bush challenged the constitutionality of Florida’s permanent disenfranchisement of ex-felons. The Florida law is both extreme in that it can be waived only after a laborious amnesty process, and unusual in that it permanently excludes first-time felons from the voting booth. Florida’s lifetime ban denies the vote to more than half-a-million state residents who have fully served felony sentences – 4.6 percent of the state’s voting-age population. Significantly, the bar to democratic participation disproportionately harms Florida’s African-American population: almost one in four black men residing in Florida (23.8 percent) is unable to vote due to a current or past conviction. Florida has more disenfranchised ex-felons than any state in the nation.
In remanding the case to the lower court for a trial, the 11th Circuit found that the lower court erred by failing to consider the evidence in accordance with the correct legal standard under the Voting Rights Act, which requires consideration of the “totality of the circumstances” to see whether a particular voting rule “interacts with social and historical conditions to cause an inequality in the opportunities enjoyed by black and white voters to elect their preferred representatives.”
Partners James J. Benjamin Jr. and Nancy Chung and associate Stacey M. Schwartz of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP filed a key amicus brief in the case on behalf of a distinguished group of social science professors and department chairs from universities around the country, including Berkeley, Carnegie-Mellon, Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers, Temple and the Universities of Colorado, Nebraska and Washington. The Akin Gump brief summarized the extensive social-science literature that has been developed over the last generation regarding the impact of race on the justice system, arguing that this type of evidence is highly relevant under the Voting Rights Act. On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed that “the district court erred in disregarding the Plaintiffs’ evidence of discrimination in the criminal justice system at the summary judgment stage.”
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