By John Haughey | The Center Square
Florida felons can register to vote. Well, at least 17 of them can.
Whether they – and as many as 1.4 million other Florida felons – will be able to vote in the 2020 election remains uncertain.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on Wednesday upheld an October federal judge’s determination that Florida’s 2019 law that prohibits released felons from voting unless they have paid all fines, fees, and restitution is unconstitutional.
The ruling means the state cannot stop felons from registering to vote, although it was issued one day after the deadline to register for the March 17 presidential primaries.
The state has vowed to appeal the court's ruling before the entire 11th Circuit and will defend its law in another federal court in April.
Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 7066 as “enabling legislation” after more than 71 percent of Florida voters in November 2018 approved Amendment 4, restoring voting rights for up to 1.4 million felons in the state. Those convicted of murder and sexual assault remain ineligible.
SB 7066 required felons pay all fines, fees, and restitution before being eligible to vote, prompting a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee on behalf of 17 felons by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense, and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice, among others.
In his October ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle determined it is unconstitutional to deny the 17 felons the right to register and vote simply because they are “genuinely unable” to pay financial obligations.
Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction against the state prohibiting the 17 plaintiffs in the case from registering to vote, and he said the state needed to develop an administrative process for felons to prove they are unable to pay court-ordered obligations.
Lawyers representing Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee appealed the ruling and appeared before the 11th Circuit Court on Jan. 28 to defend the law.
On Wednesday, the circuit court panel dismissed the state’s appeal, ruling that mandating felons to meet financial requirements “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can – and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box.”
The court referred to previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that require it to “apply heightened scrutiny in asking whether the requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to these plaintiffs.”
Wednesday’s ruling upholds the preliminary injunction and affects only the 17 plaintiffs, and the broader legal dispute remains unresolved. A full trial before Hinkle begins in April.
“We disagree with the ruling,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferre said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Ferre said the state would immediately ask the entire 11th Circuit to reconsider the ruling.
“This is a tremendous win for our clients and for our democracy,” Brennan Center for Justice Senior Counsel Sean Morales-Doyle said in a statement.
The ruling “confirmed once again that the U.S. Constitution does not allow states to deny the right to vote to citizens because of their inability to pay a fine or fee,” he said.
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