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Inside Politics

Judge rules for media on Florida voter list

Upholds both 'right to inspect' and 'right to copy'

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(CNN) -- A state court judge in Florida ordered Thursday that the board of elections immediately release a list of nearly 50,000 suspected felons to CNN and other news organizations that last month sued the state for access to copies of the list.

The list is used to determine who will be eligible to vote in November's presidential election in the state.

In a statement issued shortly after the ruling was announced, Secretary of State Glenda Hood accepted the ruling as final.

"Now that the court has ruled that statute to be unconstitutional, we will make these records accessible to all interested parties," she said.

Florida bars people convicted of felonies in that state from voting.

In 2000, a similar list was the center of controversy when state officials acknowledged after the election that it contained thousands of names in error, thus barring eligible people from voting.

Many of the barred voters were African-Americans, who traditionally tend to vote Democratic.

Bush won the state by a 537-vote margin and, with it, the presidency.

The lawsuit, filed by CNN and joined by other news organizations, challenged a 2001 statute passed by the Republican-controlled legislature that limited the public's access to the list.

News organizations were allowed to inspect the list, but not make copies of it or take notes from it. (CNN asks Florida court for ineligible voters list)

"The right to inspect without the right to copy is an empty right indeed," said Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Clark, in her six-page order.

"Whether the public chooses to inspect or copy [the list] is not the choice of the governmental agency which has custody of the record. It is the choice of the person who has requested access."

The judge went on to declare the statute unconstitutional because it failed to comply with a constitutional amendment guaranteeing public access to the state's public records.

The state has a right to an automatic 48-hour stay, if its lawyers appeal.

They would have to show cause why the information should continue to be withheld, said Tampa attorney Gregg D. Thomas of the law firm Holland & Knight, which is representing the news organizations.

"I think the long-term impact is that the citizens of Florida will have access to the interactions of their government to make sure that the government, particularly with regard to the right to vote, is conducting itself appropriately."

The list contains the names of 47,763 suspected felons.

The voter-exclusion list was compiled from state clemency reports, lists of felons and other databases, Thomas said.

The ACLU applauded the decision.

"This is good news for voters because now these records will be open and available for public inspection to help protect the right of every eligible voter in Florida," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, which also joined the case. "Our interest in this case is to analyze the information on the list to prevent eligible voters from being wrongfully purged from the rolls."

Miami lawyer Joseph Klock Jr., representing the state, did not return a call Thursday.

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