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Federal ruling: Florida can require eligible felons pay fines, fees to vote

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Yolanda Wilcox, left, a former felon, fills out a voter registration form as her best friend Gale Buswell looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. John Raoux / AP file photo

Voting rights advocates hoped a decision in the state’s challenge to a federal ruling (that declared unconstitutional a law requiring Floridians with past felony convictions pay all legal obligations in order to be eligible to vote) would be made before the deadline to register to vote for November’s general election.

They got the timing they wanted, but not the result, as the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal on Friday upheld Florida’s right to bar felons from voting if they owe court fines or fees associated with their convictions – even if they are unable to pay.

The 6-4 decision ensures the 80,000-plus felons who had registered to vote by June and the 774,000 projected to do so by Oct. 5 will be prohibited from casting ballots in November.

The ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Despite today’s ruling, the fight is not over,” American Civil Liberties Union Florida Legal Director Daniel Tilley said in a statement. “Creating roadblocks to voting based on wealth is unconstitutional, wrong, and appalling to anyone who cares about democracy.”

“This decision sanctions Florida’s ability to require a long-prohibited poll tax to vote and prolongs confusion for people who may owe monetary amounts that are unknown or difficult to determine, even by Florida,” NAACP Deputy Director of Litigation Leah Aden said in a statement. “Undoubtedly, we will keep fighting to realize the promise of Amendment 4.”

Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters in November 2018 approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for felons, excluding those convicted of murder and sexual assault, after “completing sentences.”

During the 2019 legislative session, the Legislature adopted Senate Bill 7066 as “enabling legislation,” which interpreted “completing sentences” to mean paying all legal obligations, including court fees, fines and restitution.

SB 7066 was challenged by an array of groups, launching a year-long federal legal battle that culminated in May during an eight-day trial in U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle’s Tallahassee courtroom.

In his May 24 decision in Jones v. DeSantis, Hinkle called SB 7066 a “pay-to-vote system” that imposes “a tax by any other name” and required the state to ascertain how much a felon owes within 21 days of a status request or voting rights were automatically restored.

In a majority opinion, however, Circuit Court of Appeal Chief Justice William Pryor refuted three Hinkle findings, ruling SB 7066 does not impose a poll tax or violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, nor does it violate 24th Amendment voting rights.

The court dismissed Hinkle’s contention that Florida has denied felons the right to vote because of their failure to pay court fees and costs imposed in their criminal sentences, which he contended is a poll tax under the 24th Amendment.

“Fines, which are paid to the government as punishment for a crime, and restitution, which compensates victims of crime, are not taxes,” Pryor wrote. “Court fees and costs imposed in a criminal sentence fall within this definition: they are part of the state’s punishment for a crime. They are not taxes.”

The ruling rejected Hinkle’s determination that disarray in ascertaining a felon’s eligibility to vote is a denial of due process.

Pryor acknowledged “difficulties in proving the facts that determine a felon’s eligibility” but said that confusion casts “no doubt on the clarity of the requirement that felons neither register nor vote if they know they have not satisfied the financial obligations imposed in their sentences.”

Two justices named to the Florida Supreme Court in January 2019 by Gov. Ron DeSantis and then appointed to the 11th Circuit by President Donald Trump in December both voted with the majority.

Plaintiffs had argued judges Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck should step aside because, as Florida Supreme Court justices last July, they participated in oral arguments during a DeSantis-requested advisory opinion hearing on the federal case.

The 11th Circuit Court dismissed the request and both voted in favor of the state Friday – a factor that could draw scrutiny when the inevitable appeal is filed before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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