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 Polston, Alan 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.