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2020

Appeals court: Florida can’t bar felons from vote over fines, fees

Appellate judges upheld a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle.

Voting rights advocates can celebrate a victory at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judges there ruled Florida cannot require proof of financial restitution being paid before felons whose voting rights were restored can be registered to vote.

The vote was unanimous among the three-judge panel.

“The long and short of it is that once a state provides an avenue to ending the punishment of disenfranchisement — as the voters of Florida plainly did — it must do so consonant with the principles of equal protection and it may not erect a wealth barrier absent a justification sufficient to overcome heightened scrutiny,” reads the appellate court opinion, first posted on POLITICO.

Requiring all felons to pay financial obligations violates equal protection rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment because it “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can,” the panel wrote in its ruling.

That means elections supervisors must allow individuals to register to vote and not require evidence that all fines have been resolved.

The decision ultimately upheld a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle that temporarily blocked a Florida law barring the registration of some felons because of an inability to pay.

The Appellate Court found merit in the argument that such a requirement effectively acted as “wealth discrimination.”

Attorneys for the state and Gov. Ron DeSantis have argued that Amendment 4, which automatically restored the rights of most felons to vote once their sentence is completed, assumes fines and restitution as part of sentencing.

The appellate court ruling marks the latest step in a legal saga since the Legislature in 2019 passed a controversial measure implementing Amendment 4.

Lawmakers said they based their controversial legislation in 2019 on the arguments posed in the Florida Supreme Court before Amendment 4 appeared on the ballot.

But critics of the implementing law have equated the requirement of fines and restitution to a poll tax.

Roughly 64% of voters cast ballots in favor of Amendment 4 in 2018, well over the 60% threshold required for passage. The automatic restoration of voting rights does not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, per the ballot language.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law estimated the passage of the amendment could affect a disenfranchised felony population in Florida of more than 1.6 million people.

Amendment 4 supporters heralded the ruling.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a member of the state clemency board, praised the decision.

“I applaud the 11th Circuit Court for agreeing that the right to vote is fundamental, and shouldn’t depend on personal finances,” Fried said.

“I urge the Governor to drop further appeals that deny Floridians their right to the ballot. And once again, I call on my Clemency Board colleagues to adopt new clemency rules that would automatically restore voting rights for non-violent ex-felons. We don’t have to wait on litigation or legislation. We can restore voting rights immediately. And we must.”

But in a statement, a spokesperson for DeSantis said he plans to seek an en banc review, which would send the matter to the full Atlanta appeals panel and tee the matter for additional judicial review.

Senate President Bill Galvano said he supports that move and wants to know how that plays out in court. He maintains the Legislature implemented Amendment 4 as written.

“I still believe that all term of your sentence mean all terms, including financial obligations,” Galvano told reporters in a press gaggle after the court ruling.

Pressed on whether the legal wrangling crated confusion, Galvano dismissed the notion.

“It’s not about any type of creation of confusion for voters,” he said. “The challenge came shortly after we had done our work here in the Florida Legislature and implemented what the proponents of the amendment said, and we followed literally to a word and to a letter what they said the amendment means. So if it’s getting delayed, it’s because the same people who promoted this amendment we worked hard to uphold are not backtracking on what it actually means.”

House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee, however, said his caucus always saw problems in the implementation language.

“The ruling by the 11th Circuit confirmed what we already knew: you can’t deny people the right to vote based upon their wealth. This is a win for Floridians and for democracy. I call upon the Governor to accept the ruling of the court and the will of over 5 million Floridians who voted for restoring the rights of returning citizens,” he said.

“Casting a vote has no monetary value. It is nothing other than the opportunity to participate in the collective decision-making of a democratic society and to add one’s own perspective to that of his or her fellow citizens. Each vote provides a unique opportunity to do that. No compensation a court can offer could undo that loss. The denial of the opportunity to cast a vote that a person may otherwise be entitled to cast – even once- is an irreparable harm.”

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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