Chief U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker on Wednesday recused himself from presiding over federal lawsuits contesting the constitutionality of a new state law that requires felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before voting rights are restored.
Two days before a scheduled telephone hearing at noon Friday to resolve discovery issues related to four consolidated legal challenges to Senate Bill 7066, Walker announced in an order that he was disqualifying himself from the case to avoid a potential conflict of interest.
That potential conflict surfaced when two defendants in the suits, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Peter Antonacci – former Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel appointed Broward County Supervisor of Elections by Scott in December – added Tallahassee attorney George Meros of Holland & Knight to their legal teams.
Walker’s wife, Karen D. Walker, is an executive partner in the firm’s Tallahassee office.
In his order, Walker hinted there was subterfuge afoot in hiring Meros, a former lead counsel for the Florida House, to join other attorneys already representing defendants in the case.
“Although the conduct at issue is deeply troubling, I am relieved of those concerns by confidence in my colleagues on this court to preside over the remainder of this case and judge it fairly and wisely,” Walker said in his recusal order.
Walker was nominated to serve as a judge for the U.S. Northern District of Florida by President Barak Obama in 2012 and confirmed in a 94-0 vote. He ascended to chief judge in June 2018.
He has been critical of the state in several significant elections and voting-related cases, including in January 2018 when he tossed out Florida’s process for restoring felons right to vote, calling the state’s defense of the “fatally flawed scheme" under Scott “nonsensical.”
Walker also found the state discriminated against college students by blocking early voting on campuses – a case set to go before him again after the Legislature adopted a new law essentially encoding the same restrictions he deemed unconstitutional – and issued an injunction against the state directing it to ensure Spanish-speaking voters have access to ballots in the Spanish language for the November 2018 elections.
Walker had set an expedited schedule in hearing the consolidated case, requesting during a July 6 conference call – the Saturday of the July 4 holiday weekend – that all attorneys involved file motions by July 15. Friday’s hearing was set to resolve any discovery matters in those motions.
The lawsuits were filed literally hours after DeSantis signed SB 7066, arguing that the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause by imposing a “poll tax” and excessive fines on felons.
The lawsuits argue that when Floridians approved Amendment 4 to restore as many as 1.4 million felons’ voting rights by a 64.5 percent margin in November 2018, there was no mention on the ballot of placing conditions on that restoration such as paying all court costs, including restitution, first.
But after assuming office in January, DeSantis said the constitutional amendment required an “implementing bill.”
During the legislative session, Republican lawmakers installed the requirement that felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote, claiming it was a concession that supporters had agreed to when the proposed amendment was reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court.
Although SB 7066 allows felons to petition a judge to waive fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours, opponents argue including financial obligations, which for some can run into hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in restitution, is essentially a financial disqualification for many felons who often can only find low-wage work.
Following contentious hearings and capital protests, SB 7066 was adopted by the Senate in a 22-17 vote and by the House in a 67-42 tally. Both votes were strictly partisan, with Democrats in opposition.
After DeSantis signed the bill into law on June 28 – the last day he could do so before it went into effect automatically – a 74-page complaint was filed minutes later in Gainesville by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
The groups claim making felons’ right to vote conditional on whether they can afford to pay fines and restitution violates the First, 14th, 15th and 21st amendments.
The Campaign Legal Center and Southern Poverty Law Center filed additional lawsuits the following day.