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The appeals court found the law created an unconstitutional penalty against people who can’t afford to pay certain financial obligations, but have served the rest of their sentences.
A Florida law that demands ex-felons pay all of the court-ordered fines, fees and restitution they owe before regaining their voting rights was dealt another setback in federal court on Wednesday.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law violated the constitutional rights of a group of people who are challenging the payment mandate, arguing that they cannot afford the fines and fees.
A three-judge panel ruled unanimously that “the plaintiffs are not punished in proportion to their culpability but to their wealth” and that “equally guilty but wealthier felons are offered access to the ballot while these plaintiffs continue to be disenfranchised, perhaps forever.”
Voting rights advocates framed the ruling as a win. But the case is not over yet and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is vowing to continue defending the law in court.
The outcome of the dispute has implications for how easy or difficult it may be for tens of thousands of ex-felons to cast votes in Florida—a key battleground state in most national elections.
The case stems from a state constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, that won approval at the ballot in 2018, with the support of nearly 65% of voters. This amendment was designed to automatically restore voting rights for certain felons who had completed their sentences, parole and probation.
Legislation that Florida lawmakers approved last year to implement the amendment interpreted the completion of a sentence to mean that a person must have also paid all of the fines and fees ordered by judges, as well as restitution to victims that they owed—expenses that are formally called “legal financial obligations,” or LFOs.
Seventeen individuals and three organizations later challenged this provision in federal court, with Florida’s governor, secretary of state and local officials named as defendants. These cases were eventually consolidated in a Florida district court.
The 17 people involved in the cases said that they would be eligible to vote under Amendment 4 were it not for the provision requiring the payments. Each of these people also claimed they were unable to pay the obligations because they are poor.
Last October, a federal district court judge issued a preliminary injunction, requiring the state to allow the individual plaintiffs to register to vote if they assert that they are genuinely unable to pay the costs, but are otherwise eligible to participate in elections.
The injunction also blocked the government defendants from preventing the plaintiffs from actually voting if the individuals could show that they are unable to pay. (The district court judge would later put this part of the injunction that concerned the casting of votes on hold through Feb. 11, as the appeals court proceedings played out.)
The state appealed to the 11th Circuit, which on Wednesday affirmed the preliminary injunction issued by the lower court.
In doing so, the court concluded that the payment requirement punishes people who cannot afford to pay their legal costs more harshly than those who can, amounting to a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause when applied to the plaintiffs in the case.
“Felons who are unable to pay (and who have no reasoned prospect of being able to pay) will remain barred from voting, repeatedly and indefinitely, while for those who can pay, the punishment will immediately come to an end,” the appeals court opinion says.
“Once a state provides an avenue to ending the punishment of disenfranchisement,” the ruling adds, “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.”
The nonprofit Campaign Legal Center said the 11th Circuit decision goes further than the district court ruling, outlining “a landmark principle that requiring payment of legal financial obligations as a condition of voting is unconstitutional as applied to those who are genuinely unable to pay.”
“Two courts have now recognized that Florida can’t deny people the right to vote based on the ability of citizens to pay,” said Paul Smith, the group’s vice president.
DeSantis’ communications director, Helen Ferre, said in a statement that the governor’s office disagreed with the appeals court ruling and would seek an “en banc” review by the full court.
The case is set to go to a full trial on its merits before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, in Tallahassee, on April 6.
Estimates referenced in court documents and elsewhere indicate that Amendment 4 opens the door for as many as 1.4 million people convicted of felonies to have their voting rights restored.
An expert for the plaintiffs in the current legal dispute compiled data for 58 of Florida’s 67 counties and found that, among about 542,000 people with felony convictions who’d completed their incarceration, parole and probation, around 436,000 had outstanding legal financial obligations. About 59% of those people owed at least $500.
The appeals court ruling noted that these figures did not include data for some of Florida’s most populous counties, suggesting that the estimates are conservative.
Florida is not alone in requiring that legal financial obligations be paid before people convicted of felonies can have their voting rights restored. At least seven other states, according to a footnote in the court ruling, have similar requirements in place.
The next statewide election in Florida is the state's presidential primary, which is scheduled to take place on March 17.
Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.