A federal judge Monday said “it’s a no brainer” that the Florida Legislature’s requirement that ex-felons pay all financial obligations to be eligible to vote “harms the franchise” voters thought they’d restored when they approved Amendment 4 by more than 64 percent in November 2018.
Judge Robert Hinkle made the statement late in the first day of hearings in his U.S. Northern District of Florida courtroom in Tallahassee in a lawsuit challenging the 2019 implementing bill approved by state lawmakers that restricted restoration of voting rights under Amendment 4 only to felons who have paid any outstanding costs, fines, fees or restitution.
A coalition of civil- and voting-rights groups, led by the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund, argued the Legislature’s implementing bill signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis is unconstitutional and will leave most felons “disenfranchised.”
After November’s vote to restore felons’ voting rights, DeSantis said the constitutional amendment required an “implementing” bill.
During the ensuing session, Republican lawmakers installed a requirement that felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote in Senate Bill 7066, claiming it was a concession sponsors agreed to when it was reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court.
Although SB 7066 allows felons to petition a judge to waive fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours, opponents argue including financial obligations, which for some can run into hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in restitution, is essentially a financial disqualification -- “a poll tax” -- for many low-income felons.
Following contentious hearings and capital protests, SB 7066 was adopted by the Senate in a 22-17 vote and by the House in a 67-42 tally. Both votes were strictly partisan, with Democrats in opposition.
Within days -- hours in two instances -- of DeSantis signing SB 7066, four lawsuits were filed claiming the bill violated the intent of ballot measure approved by voters.
The complaints were consolidated into one lawsuit before Hinkle’s court. Hearings began in August.
After Hinkle rejected the state’s motion to dismiss the case, he also rejected DeSantis’ and Lee’s request that he delay the federal proceedings until the Florida Supreme Court issues an advisory opinion on the case.
On Aug. 9, DeSantis submitted a request to the state’s Supreme Court to issue an advisory opinion on whether the state can legally require felons pay all court fines, fees and restitution before their voting rights are restored under Amendment 4.
On Aug. 28, all seven justices agreed. Briefs must be filed by Sept. 18 and responses were to be filed by Oct, 3. Oral argument are set for Nov. 6
However, in Hinkle’s court, the federal case will go on.
State attorneys Monday argued the plaintiffs are making a case for criminal justice reform more appropriately addressed by the Legislature, not the courts.
State attorneys reiterated their insistence that Amendment 4 requires former felons complete “all terms” of criminal sentences, not “some terms.”
The implementing bill allows ex-felons to request a waiver from the judge who sentenced them or convert their fines into community service, state attorneys argued, so there is no “irrevocable injury or harm” to citizens who can’t vote because they still owe a financial obligation.
University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith said projecting data from the Florida Department of Corrections and 48 clerks of court across the state, 542,207 people who had been charged with felony convictions have completed their sentences since November’s election.
Of those 542,207 people, Smith testified, an estimated 80 percent – more than 430,000 – have an outstanding financial legal obligations and/or restitution, ranging between $500 and $5,000.
During a noon Monday rally near the Florida Supreme Court building, Amendment 4 supporters demonstrated against the implementing bill.
“This law restricts the right to vote far beyond what any reasonable voter intended when they voted ‘yes’ for Amendment 4,” ACLU of Florida Deputy Director Melba Pearson told reporters. “This Legislature had every single opportunity over the past 150 years to reform Florida’s shameful lifetime of disenfranchisement, and they failed to do so.”
John Haughey is the Florida contributor to The Center Square.