In a win for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a federal appeals court on Wednesday agreed to the state’s request for a rare full-court initial review of a voting rights ruling that could open the door for hundreds of thousands of Florida felons to participate in this year’s elections.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also granted the Republican Governor’s request to put a stay on a lower-court decision in the battle over the constitutionality of a 2019 state law. Voting-rights groups challenged the law, which is aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored the voting rights of felons “who have completed all terms of their sentences, including parole and probation.”
The challenge has centered on part of the law, approved by Republican legislators and signed by DeSantis, that required felons who have completed their time in jail or prison to pay “legal financial obligations” — fines, fees, costs and restitution — associated with their convictions to be eligible to vote. Opponents have likened that requirement to a poll tax.
Siding with the voting-rights groups, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in October that the state cannot deny the right to vote to someone who is “genuinely unable to pay.” He cemented the ruling in a May 24 decision and laid out a process for the state to use in determining felons’ voting eligibility. Hinkle also subsequently rejected an attempt by DeSantis to put the ruling on hold.
Under the procedure developed by Hinkle, hundreds of thousands of felons who are no longer incarcerated would be considered eligible to vote.
But DeSantis’ lawyers asked the Atlanta-based appeals court to issue a stay in the case, arguing Hinkle’s decision could “corrupt” the integrity of the state’s upcoming elections. Also, the lawyers made the highly unusual move of asking the appeals court for what is known as an “en banc,” or full court, initial review of the appeal. Nearly all appeals are initially conducted by three-judge panels.
The appeals court agreed with the DeSantis administration’s requests Wednesday, after a series of legal setbacks for the Governor and other Republicans seeking to uphold the 2019 law and block Hinkle’s ruling from going into effect. Republican backers contend the 2019 law properly carries out the language of the 2018 constitutional amendment.
“Because a majority of the judges in active service have voted in favor of granting an initial hearing en banc, defendants-appellants petition for initial hearing en banc is granted,” said Wednesday’s order, which also granted the state’s motion to stay a permanent injunction issued by Hinkle in May.
The 10 judges who approved the order included Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, who were appointed by DeSantis shortly after he took office in 2019 to serve on the Florida Supreme Court. The former justices left the state court after President Donald Trump, a close ally of DeSantis, appointed them to the federal appeals court last year.
Plaintiffs, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Campaign Legal Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, had asked the 11th Circuit to turn down the state’s attempt to have the appeal considered by the full court. But they agreed that the case should be expedited so potential voters can participate in Florida’s Aug. 18 primary elections and the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Hinkle’s order “was compelled by decades of binding U.S. Supreme Court precedent that said you can’t make someone’s ability to vote hinge on how much money they have,” Campaign Legal Center attorney Mark Gaber told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re hopeful at the end of the day that the 11th Circuit will likewise follow the binding Supreme Court precedent, and do so quickly, because it is not good for the voters of Florida to have the status of their rights constantly changing back and forth,” Gaber added.
Hinkle’s ruling in May established a way for the vast majority of felons who have been banned from participating in elections to register and vote, based on their financial status at the time they were convicted and their voting rights were stripped.
The judge on June 14 refused to put his decision on hold, saying his ruling “will cause the state no harm, let alone any irreparable harm.”
“No matter how many times the state asserts the contrary, a statute that punishes some individuals more harshly based only on wealth, or that irrationally conditions eligibility to vote on wealth, is unconstitutional,” wrote Hinkle, who has repeatedly branded the state law as a “pay-to-vote” system.
But lawyers for DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee argued in a brief at the appeals court that the state law should not be overturned.
“Here, Florida’s interest in punishing a felony is not satisfied until all the terms of a felon’s sentence are completed in full,” the brief said. “This is true whether the uncompleted term at issue is a period of incarceration or a fine and regardless of why the term remains unsatisfied.”
Gaber said it’s “imperative that the court move quickly,” especially now that Hinkle’s ruling has been blocked. The hundreds of thousands of Floridians impacted by the decisions need certainty, he said.
“It’s bad enough that they have so little clarity as to what they even owe, which the district court found after a week-long trial. To then have their legal status thrown into question is not good,” Gaber said.