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Federal judge hints he’ll rule against state, create process to allow Florida felons to vote during appeal

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The Florida State Capitol buildings (Old Capitol in foreground) in Tallahassee. Shutterstock photo

Focus on the Legislature

By John Haughey | The Center Square

    A federal judge said he will create a process to allow as many as 774,000 felons to vote in upcoming elections since Florida has failed to do so.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle stated his intent Wednesday at the conclusion of eight days of testimony in a federal trial challenging a Florida law that requires felons to pay all legal fines and obligations before being permitted to vote.

At question in Jones v. DeSantis is 2019’s Senate Bill 7066, adopted after 71 percent of voters in November 2018 approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for Florida felons after completing sentences, excluding those convicted of murder or sexual assault.

In February, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Hinkle’s October ruling that SB 7066 is unconstitutional because it denies the right to vote to felons “genuinely unable” to pay financial obligations.

The federal appeals court also upheld Hinkle’s injunction, which prevented the state from barring 17 named plaintiffs in four lawsuits challenging the law from voting. Hinkle since has granted class certification for one consolidated case, meaning the ruling will affect all eligible felons.

Hinkle strongly indicated Wednesday how he plans to rule when he queried state attorneys about their readiness to file an appeal with voter registration deadlines for 2020 elections nearing.

“We need to get the case up to the 11th circuit, assuming again I don’t satisfy everybody,” he said. “And, look, if you look at the remedy and you think you’ve got a better idea, put it in a motion to alter or amend. Just do it as soon as you can.”

Hinkle revisited previous criticism of the state for requiring felons to pay legal fines and obligations to be eligible to vote but not providing a system to verify what they owe and what they’ve paid.

He said the state had not even completed reviews of the 17 felons named as plaintiffs in the October injunction.

Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews said Monday her staff can review fewer than 60 cases per day.

At that rate, Hinkle said, it could take six years for the state to process voter registrations filed by felons. Therefore, he said, he will create an interim process to allow felons to vote since the state has failed to do so.

“I don’t think I’m going to surprise you. I’m going to follow the 11th Circuit decision,” he said.

Hinkle also hinted a key determination in his ruling will be whether partisanship was the motivation for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican statehouse leaders when they adopted SB 7066 as “enabling” legislation after Amendment 4 was adopted.

During Wednesday’s closing arguments, plaintiffs’ attorneys said Republican lawmakers were motivated by race and partisanship in passing the bill.

They argued adding as many as 774,000 voters could change the dynamics in a state where GOP congressional and state leadership is sustained by razor-thin margins, especially, they said, if the presumption was most felons are black and, therefore, mostly likely to vote Democratic.

“The Florida Legislature crafted a [legal fines and obligations] requirement it knew would disproportionately harm black voters,” NAACP Legal Defense Fund Deputy Director of Litigation Leah Aden said, claiming the motivation was simple: keep Republicans in power.

State attorney Mohammad Jazil denied race and partisanship were factors and said plaintiffs presented “no direct evidence of racially discriminatory intent in this case.”

Hinkle said while “there’s no direct evidence of racial animus in anybody’s heart in any of this,” claiming politics was not the impetus for SB 7066 is dubious.

“Why is it all the Republicans voted ‘yes,’ and all the Democrats voted ‘no’?” he asked. “That was not a coincidence.”

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