Florida Ex-felons Must Pay Fines, Fees to Vote, Appeals Court Rules

September 12, 2020 Updated: September 13, 2020

A federal appeals court ruled that Florida can bar ex-felons from voting if they owe fines and fees related to their sentences, reversing a lower court’s decision that found the law unconstitutional.

In a 6–4 ruling before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on Sept. 11, the judges sided with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who has been defending the state law that required all ex-felons to pay off restitution, court fees, and fines before their voting rights are restored.

The ruling could influence the November election as it now stands as a barrier for thousands of ex-felons who have completed “all terms of their sentence including probation and parole,” but are unable to pay off restitution, court fees, and fines as part of their sentence.

The appeals court found that the felons who sued DeSantis and his administration over the law had not proven that the law had violated the Constitution. It also held that states are afforded the discretion in the disenfranchisement and re-enfranchisement of felons.

“If a State may decide that those who commit serious crimes are presumptively unfit for the franchise,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion (pdf). “It may also conclude that those who have completed their sentences are the best candidates for re-enfranchisement.”

The court also rejected the lower’s ruling that the law “invidiously discriminate[s] based on wealth.”

“That decision was wrong. To reiterate, Florida withholds the franchise from any felon, regardless of wealth, who has failed to complete any term of his criminal sentence—financial or otherwise. It does not single out the failure to complete financial terms for special treatment. And in any event, wealth is not a suspect classification,” Pryor wrote.

In May, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle issued a permanent injunction to block the state law and declared parts of the law unconstitutional. He also ordered the state to put in place a new process that would help ex-felons determine whether they are eligible for vote.

“This pay-to-vote system would be universally decried as unconstitutional but for one thing: each citizen at issue was convicted, at some point in the past, of a felony offense,” Hinkle said in his May ruling.

In November 2018, Florida passed an amendment, commonly referred to as Amendment 4, to the state’s constitution that allows ex-convicts to vote “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation,” but excludes those who were convicted of murder or felony sexual offense. Before the amendment, all convicted felons were permanently disenfranchised without a grant of executive clemency.

DeSantis subsequently signed Senate Bill 7066 (pdf) in 2019, mandating that all formerly incarcerated people pay off restitution, court fees, and fines before their voting rights are restored (pdf). The law faced intense opposition from voting rights advocacy groups, who argue that it denies people with felony convictions the right to vote and penalizes them based on their inability to pay off fees and fines.

Several ex-felons and advocacy groups then brought a lawsuit against state officials, challenging the constitutionality of the requirement to pay off all legal financial obligations. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida consolidated the cases and issued a preliminary injunction in favor of the ex-felons, prompting the state to appeal. A panel in the court of appeals upheld the injunction in February.

Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, who brought the suit on behalf of the ex-felons said in a statement that the “ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote. The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy.”

Meanwhile, ACLU of Florida Legal Director Daniel Tilley vowed that the legal fight isn’t over.

DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo told The Associated Press in an email that the court’s decision upholds the meaning of “all terms of a sentence means all terms.”

“There are multiple avenues to restore rights, pay off debts, and seek financial forgiveness from one’s victims,” Piccolo said. “Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive.”

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