GULFPORT, FL—Stetson University College of Law and Community Law Program (CLP) received a $33,500 grant from the American Bar Endowment (ABE) to create clinics to help returning citizens previously convicted of felonies get their voting rights restored.
Stephen N. Zack, former Florida Bar and American Bar Association President and current ABE President, said, “Because of the generous donations of thousands of ABA lawyer members who contribute available annual dividends from their ABE-sponsored insurance plans, the ABE is able to make annual grants in support of projects and programs addressing critical needs of the underserved population. With the financial support of our insureds, we are able to fund a diverse array of important projects such as these clinics in Florida that are working to restore citizens’ fundamental voting rights.”
In 2018, 65 percent of Floridians voted to amend the Florida Constitution to restore voting rights to 1.4 million citizens previously convicted of felonies (commonly referred to as “returning citizens”). Months later, the Florida Legislature passed Chapter 2019-162 Committee Substitute for Senate Bill No. 7066 requiring all financial obligations of returning citizens’ sentences be paid before they could vote. This meant only those returning citizens with enough money to pay financial obligations such as court fees, fines, and restitution in full would be eligible to vote. The requirement eliminates access to justice and civic engagement for hundreds of thousands of low-income and indigent citizens.
Litigation is pending on this issue and a new hearing is scheduled for August 11. In the meantime, returning citizens still need help reviewing their court records, determining what, if any, type of legal financial obligations are owed and whether it’s necessary for them to pay the legal financial obligations.
“When the law imposes barriers to a right as fundamental as the right to vote, and when those barriers disproportionately impact poor people, we had to get involved,” said Kimberly Rodgers, executive director for Community Law Program. “I’m so thankful to the American Bar Endowment for enabling our organization and Stetson to come together on this important work.”
To combat possible confusion around this issue, CLP, with the help of students and faculty at Stetson University College of Law, have started a series of Restoration of Voting Rights Remote Clinics serving Pinellas County, Fla. CLP staff will recruit, train, and support volunteer attorneys to host virtual clinics twice a month to review legal options with returning citizens interested in restoring their voting rights.
“The effort to ensure the right to vote to all citizens in the state of Florida is crucial to ensuring a fair democracy in which all of our voices count,” said Stetson Law Professor Judith A. Scully. “To allow restrictions on a citizen’s right to vote is an affront not only to the individual’s civil and political rights, but it is an affront to the entire legal system. Our students and alumni attorneys who participate in this project will demonstrate Stetson’s commitment to equal justice. We are proud to be a part of the campaign to restore the voting rights of individuals who were previously incarcerated.”
Stetson Law selected four student fellows who will support CLP’s outreach efforts through assisting with intake, research, and outreach. The law students also will assist in recruiting, organizing and training other law student volunteers and community partners. Stetson faculty will help provide ethics training for volunteer attorneys and students regarding pro bono outreach efforts.
“The students have become community organizers and leaders on these important issues,” said Christine E. Cerniglia, Stetson Law professor and director of Clinical and Experiential Education. “This type of work is an opportunity to engage students in outreach outside of the classroom and for them to learn about community lawyering.”
Community Law’s first clinic took place online on June 25 from 5-7 p.m. Clinics will be every first and third Thursday of the month from 5-7 p.m. People can call CLP at 727-582-7480 to schedule an appointment.
“We’ve been pleased and encouraged by how a modest Opportunity Grant can mean so much and produce such a significant impact. With such a substantial unmet need for legal services, we are proud to be partnering with Community Law Program and Stetson University College of Law to address this critical need,” Mr. Zack said.