- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Senate Democrats on Tuesday pressed three Trump-appointed judges on the federal bench in Florida to recuse themselves from a case to grant voting rights to felons in that battleground state.

The recusal request, which is an unusual move for senators, targeted three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and demanded they “explain their involvement” in the case.

“Your involvement in this case also appears to violate the Code of Conduct for United States Judges,” Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote in letters to the judges.

The judges next month will hear the challenge to a state law that requires felons released from prison pay all related fines and restitution before they can vote, which critics decry as a veritable “poll tax.”

The senators want recusals from Judges Barbara Lagoa, Robert Luck and Richard Brasher, who were recently appointed by President Trump. Judges Jagoa and Luck were previously appointed to the Florida state supreme court by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is the defendant in the felon voting case.

The case has followed a winding path to the 11th Circuit, which has scheduled a hearing on the matter for August, the same month as Florida’s primary.

On July 16, the U.S. Supreme Court declined an emergency request to lift a stay against a preliminary injunction issued against the law in federal district court, with a trio of liberal justices dissenting from that decision.

The litigation follows an initiative known as Amendment 4, which Florida voters approved by nearly a two-thirds majority in 2018 that restored voting rights to felons who had completed their sentence and probation. When writing the law, the Florida legislature included language that included all “unpaid legal obligations,” meaning the franchise would return to those who had paid the fines and fees tied to the conviction.

Last October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled on behalf of 17 plaintiffs in the case at hand, known as Jones v. DeSantis. Those plaintiffs “have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state’s only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay.”

Amendment 4 supporters, who insist the law could concern more than 1 million voters, have argued that the felon debts are often beyond their means to pay, thereby undermining the referendum’s intent to restore voting rights.

The matter had come up before the Florida supreme court, which had ruled in the legislature’s favor. In the case of Ms. Lagoa and Mr. Luck, the committee Democrats noted they “were involved in the court’s decision to grant en banc review in the case despite previously participating in an advisory opinion on the law as members of the Supreme Court of Florida.”

In the case of Mr. Brasher, he had “defend[ed] a similar Alabama felon disenfranchisement law,” when he was that state’s solicitor general, the Democrats wrote.

The Democrats argue that the judges should recuse themselves given their “prior involvement” with the case, and said they appear “to violate the Code of Conduct for United States judges.

All three letters conclude by insisting congressional “oversight includes a responsibility to ensure that sitting federal judges honor their commitments to the senate and the public.”

The 11th Circuit closed Tuesday evening and the three judges could not be reached independently for comment.

The letter surfaces at a time when partisan tensions over the federal judiciary are running high. Chief Justice John Roberts took exception earlier this year to President Trump referencing judges in terms of which president nominated them, and conservatives have argued senate Democrats have been sending increasingly aggressive threats to vote their way.

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