Gov. DeSantis denies pardon for Desmond Meade but pushes through reform of FL’s clemency process

By: - March 10, 2021 1:03 pm

The Florida Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix

Gov. Ron DeSantis blocked a pardon on Wednesday for Desmond Meade, who led the campaign behind Florida’s voting-rights restoration ballot initiative in 2018, citing Meade’s dishonorable discharge from the military.

However, the governor suggested Meade could qualify for restoration of his civil rights, including the right to serve on juries and hold public office, under revised clemency rules that he and the Florida Cabinet had approved earlier in the day.

“As a former military officer, a dishonorable discharge is the highest punishment that a court martial may render. I consider it very serious. I’m not saying that he hadn’t done good things, but I would want that as a precondition for us doing the state case, that that military dishonorable discharge be addressed,” said DeSantis, who’d served in the Navy’s judge advocate general corps.

“I think he would be completely eligible now under the rule changes that we did to seek his rights restoration,” the governor added.

Those rule changes allow automatic restoration of civil rights to convicted felons who have satisfied any legal financial obligations, including payment of fines, court fees, and restitution. Sitting as the state’s Clemency Board, the governor and Cabinet members also did away with a requirement that returning citizens wait five years before seeking restoration of their rights, including to vote, serve on juries, and hold public office.

“I believe that those who have had their voting rights restored under Amendment 4, it makes sense to also restore the other civil rights,” DeSantis said during the meeting.

Under the rule changes, people who haven’t satisfied their financial obligations can still apply to the governor and Cabinet for restoration through the hearing process, he added. The new process does not apply for applications for restoration of the right to own guns.

In a Twitter video posted later in the day, Meade called the treatment of his pardon petition “very disappointing.”

Criminal justice reform advocate Desmond Meade appears in a Twitter video on March 10, 2021, after being denied a pardon. Source: Twitter feed

Meade, who’d last been denied clemency in September, said he’d overcome his past criminal behavior, homelessness, and drug addiction to graduate from law school and work to benefit all Floridians. He also noted that he’d won restoration of his voting rights under Amendment 4.

“That still did not appear to be enough for the governor and Cabinet to say, “Yes, Desmond, we see how you’ve turned your life around we’ve seen that you have dedicated your life to giving back to the community, and therefore we’re going to grant you a pardon,” he said.

The outcome underscored why he led the campaign for Amendment 4, he continued, arguing that the process has been arbitrary and unfair.

Nikki Fried, the Democratic commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, issued a written statement contrasting DeSantis’ treatment of Meade to his support for John MacIver last year as chief judge of a state administrative court. MacIver had strong conservative credentials but had been kicked out of the Navy during a troubled youth.

“This hypocritical grandstanding underlies the fact that today’s changes to Florida’s clemency rules, while an improvement, will still needlessly leave thousands of Floridians without their civil and voting rights,” Fried said.

“These rules were proposed late at night and were approved on a rushed-through vote, despite my offering several simple amendments that would have dramatically improved them.”

Amendment 4 was the 2018 ballot initiative that promised to restore voting rights to returning felons, except in cases of murder or sexual offenses.

However, the GOP-dominated Legislature voted to require payment first of all of those legal financial obligations, imposed as part of felons’ sentences. A federal appeal court in Atlanta upheld the law in September.

As of September, when the Clemency Board last met, the backlog of applicants was 24,000 names long, according to the News Service of Florida. Former Gov. Rick Scott, now Florida’s junior U.S. senator, imposed waiting periods when he was in the Governor’s Mansion, undoing a more lenient process approved when Charlie Crist was governor.

Tallahassee clemency attorney Richard Greenberg praised the revisions in light of existing delays in processing applications.

“I have a client who filed an application in 2008. His application has not yet been reviewed,” Greenberg said. Others have been waiting for five to 10 years, he added.

Neil Volz, of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the Meade-led organization that sponsored Amendment 4, said the Florida Parole Commission has determined that restoration of civil rights renders returning felons three times less likely to reoffend.

“We think that’s not only good for returning citizens; we know that that’s good for the entire state,” Volz said.

Fried, the only Democrat on the Cabinet, praised the revision as far as it goes, but argued for allowing petitioners to get around the financial obligation by swearing an affidavit of indigency.

“No Amendment 4 litigation, if we had done this as I proposed two years ago, would have been necessary,” Fried said.

Attorney General Ashley Moody said she has pushed for the changes since taking office two years ago. “I think the rules are a great first step to reducing our backlog,” she said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.