Florida Supreme Court sides with Governor on felon voter rights

Supreme Court of Florida
Court's opinion supports those of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Legislature

The Supreme Court of Florida handed Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led Florida Legislature a major victory Thursday by affirming that language of 2018’s Amendment 4 referendum requires felons to complete all financial obligations of their criminal sentences before they can register again to vote.

In an advisory opinion that included a partial 4-1 split of the court, with Justice Jorge Labarga partially concurring yet dissenting on a key point regarding voter information, the High Court declared that where Amendment 4’s language says felons must complete “all terms of sentence” that legally includes all “legal financial obligations,” notably all fines, fees, and restitution that judges may order them to pay.

That matter emerged as a huge, largely-partisan point of contention in the 2019 Florida Legislative Session, between backers of Amendment 4, which was overwhelmingly approved by 65 percent voters and amended to the Florida Constitution, and the Republican leadership and majority.

Backers of Amendment 4 made various arguments that financial requirements, particularly restitution [which can run into hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in some cases] were often unreasonable requirements for felons and equated to a poll tax. They also contended voters could not have been assumed to believe they would be requiring such payments when they approved Amendment 4.

Republicans disagreed, pointing out previous testimony by Amendment 4’s team that clearly acknowledged financial obligations within terms of sentences.

The Legislature approved Senate Bill 7066 which includes financial obligations as a mandate for such “returning citizens” to become eligible to vote.

DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court to offer an opinion.

At stake are the voting rights of potentially a million Floridians as the Sunshine State heads into the 2020 elections.

“The Florida Supreme Court’s decision is disappointing and cuts the 1.4 million people who voters expressly intended to re-enfranchise almost in half. By holding Floridians’ right to vote hostage, the Florida Supreme Court is permitting the unconstitutional modern-day poll tax in SB 7066, and redefining an amendment nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved of in 2018,” Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center declared in response.

The advisory opinion that DeSantis sought came down Thursday.

“There is no basis to conclude that ‘all terms of sentence’ excludes any LFOs ordered by the sentencing judge. Indeed, an abundance of statutory and case law supports the conclusion that fines, restitution, and fees and costs all comfortably fit within the ordinary meaning of ‘all terms of sentence,'” the majority opinion stated.

Thursday’s Florida Supreme Court opinion siding with the Governor, widely expected by court watchers, came as the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals prepares to hear arguments Jan. 28 in the separate federal lawsuit.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit lambasted the Florida court’s ruling.

“We think, of course, it’s wrong, that the language in and of itself should be restricted to everything associated with a sentence except for the LFOs, and we are emphasizing that this is an unconstitutional poll tax or an unconstitutional form of wealth-based discrimination,” Southern Poverty Law Center deputy legal director Nancy Abudu told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Thursday.

A trial is set to begin in April in the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee. In that lawsuit, civil rights groups along with voting rights groups allege the implementation bill is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle ruled last October that it’s unconstitutional to bar felons from voting who are “genuinely” unable to pay their financial obligations. DeSantis’ administration has appealed that decision.

In Thursday’s release, Chief Justice Charles T. Canady and Justices Ricky PolstonAlan Lawson, and Carlos G. Muñiz offered the majority opinion.

Their opinion stated that “Beginning with restitution, this Court has referred to that obligation as part of a ‘sentence,’ and even as ‘punishment.’”

Then the opinion declares, “An analysis of fines looks remarkably similar. Indeed, this Court has referred to fines as part of a ‘sentence.'”

And it continues, “although fees and costs can reasonably be said to differ in many respects from restitution and fines, various court pronouncements and statutory provisions similarly support including them within the scope of Amendment 4’s phrase ‘all terms of sentence.'”

Labarga concurred with all of that.

Where he differed from the other justices was on a second question, about whether Florida voters should have reasonably known that financial obligations would be included in requirements of Amendment 4.

The majority wrote, “the phrase ‘all terms of sentence,’ as used in article VI, section 4, has an ordinary meaning that the voters would have understood to refer not only to durational periods but also to all LFOs imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt.”

Not so, Labarga contended in his dissent. He also argued that a broader context needed to be considered, particularly if the text of the amendment itself is vague or ambiguous and the framers of the amendment offer a different interpretation than the state.

He wrote, “according to the majority’s approach, clear and unambiguous extrinsic evidence of the true intent of the framers and voters, such as the evidence available in this case, must be disregarded. I respectfully disagree.”

___

The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.


11 comments

  • Thomas Knapp

    January 16, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    This seems like an easy problem to solve with a simple compromise: If they don’t get to vote, they’re not bound by the decisions of the officials they were forbidden to vote for.

    See “governed, consent of.”

    • gary

      January 17, 2020 at 1:09 pm

      From simple minds come democrat ideas! Thomas you are a moron!

      • Thomas Knapp

        January 17, 2020 at 1:35 pm

        Nice try. The last time (and only time) I voted for a Democrat for president was 1988.

  • No More Republicans !!!

    January 16, 2020 at 1:05 pm

    The Florida Republican Supreme Court is as corrupt as the Trump White House!

    Next step for felons? The American Bar Association should fund a group of lawyers to provide pro bono bankruptcy filings for all felons who have been released from serving their sentences – but still have any kind of financial obligations hanging over their heads. And once the bankruptcy is finalized, the lawyer assists the client in registering to vote.

    If the ABA doesn’t do it, there should be any number of civil rights organizations who would do it. Additionally, other organizations might develop programs to assist in simply relocating these individuals to jurisdictions where they can freely register to vote.

    Florida is very quickly becoming a fascistic Republican banana republic. Normal people should find more normal places to settle down in.

    • Thomas Knapp

      January 16, 2020 at 1:11 pm

      That would be nice, except that criminal fines/restitution can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.

  • Janu

    January 16, 2020 at 3:44 pm

    “There is no basis to conclude that ‘all terms of sentence’ EXCLUDES any LFOs ordered by the sentencing judge. Indeed, an abundance of statutory and case law supports the conclusion that fines, restitution, and fees and costs all comfortably fit within the ordinary meaning of ‘all terms of sentence,’” the majority opinion stated.

    The amendment on the ballot clearly states, all terms of sentence–period, end of story; not just the term (length) of the sentence. Go back and read the original language.

  • Domino

    January 16, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    English prevails!

  • Thomas Knapp

    January 16, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    I’ve read the original language. Terms of SENTENCE.

    Court costs, etc. other than fines/restitution — i.e. “fees and costs” are not included in sentencing orders. They’re ordered by judges OUTSIDE the context of sentencing.

    “There is no basis” is apparently judicialese for “we can’t read.”

    Courts sometimes also examine government justifications for wanting to do X, and rule against the government if those justifications are false.

    And the ACTUAL justification for trying to nullify the clear and unambiguous text of a constitutional amendment passed by the voters is “uh-oh … those new voters would probably lean Democrat.”

  • Richard Nascak

    January 16, 2020 at 6:51 pm

    The attempt to liken this to a poll tax is juvenile. A poll tax is the product of the legislative branch. There is no judicial branch involvement. In this case as with many others, the legislature has used language which lends itself to judicial interpretation. The Florida Supreme Court has rendered such.

    A poll tax is triggered upon enactment. There is no due process of law involved. This bill only affects those sentenced under due process of law,and then only those with outstanding obligations of that sentence.

  • gary

    January 17, 2020 at 1:08 pm

    This was only an issue because DEMORATS are searching for more voters! They always recruit from the weakest pools! the uneducated, the non english speaking and the criminals.

    Another win for TRUMP 2020! Suck it DemoRats!

  • Stephanie

    January 20, 2020 at 1:57 pm

    There’s a saying that if you do the crime you will do the time. Restitution forces those people who commit crimes to be responsible for the financial problems they might cause in theft or causing car accidents when they shouldn’t be drivin and they cause damage or death or medical bills for those who do follow the law. These indivduals can do payment plans but never do. For years they have ignored repaying a debt to society. I don’t feel bad at all. The Supreme Court followed the law for once in holding people accountable for their crimes and debts to society.

Comments are closed.


#FlaPol

Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Jason Delgado, Drew Dixon, Renzo Downey, Rick Flagg, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Andrew Wilson, and Kelly Hayes.

Email: Peter@FloridaPolitics.com
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704