As Hurricane Matthew approached Florida, Governor Rick Scott called for the evacuation of large swaths of the state’s eastern seaboard. Over a million people left their homes, and the storm tragically took nine lives in the state. Hurricane Matthew also disrupted an important event in the state: Florida’s voter registration deadline of October 11. Despite ordering over a million people to leave their homes, Governor Scott refused to extend the deadline.
Fortunately, his decision was not the final word on the issue. A number of civil rights groups and the Florida Democratic Party filed an emergency lawsuit seeking to have the deadline extended. Judge Mark E. Walker of the Northern District of Florida issued an initial one-day extension to allow for further argument, and yesterday ordered Florida to extend the voter registration deadline until Tuesday, October 18.
The ruling will impact a number of groups. Critically, it will allow those who fled their homes and were unable to register on time to submit their paperwork and vote on Election Day. Immigrants will also benefit; naturalization ceremonies throughout the state were canceled because of the storm. For instance, Lily Paez of Coral Gables has lived in the U.S. for fourteen years. She was scheduled to be naturalized on October 8, just in time to register, but the ceremony was canceled because of Hurricane Matthew. The Court’s decision will allow people like her the opportunity to vote. Finally, young Hispanics and African-Americans are likely to benefit as they are the demographic group most likely to register to vote later in the registration cycle.
Judge Walker was nominated by President Obama in 2012, and approved by the Senate in a 94-0 vote. He was eminently qualified for the position, having graduated first in his class from the University of Florida and magna cum laude from the university’s Frederic G. Levin College of Law. Before being appointed as a federal judge, Walker worked as a law clerk, a public defender, a private practitioner, and a state judge.
This voting rights decision is just one of many that demonstrate that courts matter. Judges on the Fourth Circuit have struck down onerous restrictions placed on voting rights in North Carolina, while judges on the Fifth Circuit have done the same with Texas’s burdensome requirements. Federal judges in Wisconsin have repeatedly ordered the state to stop encumbering the right to vote.
Without judges appropriately concerned about all Americans’ right to vote, these cases could have turned out the other way. It is critical for our democracy that our courts be fully staffed with excellent and fair judges. Yet, currently there are 92 vacancies on our federal courts, including, of course, one on the Supreme Court. President Obama has put forth 54 qualified nominees to fill some of these seats but the obstructionist Senate has yet to confirm these individuals.
Lower courts are critical for protecting the constitutional rights of everyday Americans. With the Supreme Court short a justice, their role is even more essential. As such, it is vital that we have judges who stand up for all people’s right and that we have a Senate which takes seriously the business of ensuring all federal courts have their full complement of judges. We must work to ensure both of these objectives. If we don’t, future Lily Paez’s may be denied their constitutional rights.