Voting Rights

In Advisory Opinion, Florida Supreme Court Says State Can Require Ex-Felons To Pay Fines Before Having Their Voting Rights Restored

The Court argues that Amendment 4's language covers financial obligations, not just terms of imprisonment and supervised release.

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The Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion last week condoning a state law that prohibits residents with felony convictions from voting if they owe outstanding fines and court fees. Opponents of the law say it undermines a ballot initiative that was slated to restore the voting rights of an estimated 1.4 million Floridians and that it is also unconstitutional.  

Passed by a popular vote in November 2018, Amendment 4 changed the Florida constitution to restore the voting rights of former felons. "Complications emerged almost immediately," Reason's C.J. Ciaramella noted last year. "The language of Amendment 4 said that voting rights would be restored 'upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation,' but it did not say whether 'all terms' included financial obligations imposed by courts."

The Republican-led state legislature chose to interpret "all terms of sentence" as including fines, restitution, and court fees associated with the felony conviction. Both chambers of the state legislature enshrined that interpretation in SB 7066, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law on June 28, 2019.  

Almost immediately, civil liberties groups representing impoverished former felons sought an injunction against the state in federal court, claiming that SB 7066 essentially imposed a poll tax in violation of the 24th Amendment. In October 2019, Judge Robert Hinkle of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida issued a temporary injunction, writing that "each of these plaintiffs have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state's only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay."

"The court's decision is clear: The right to vote cannot be denied to anyone based on their inability to pay," said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, in a statement. "The state must create a clear and unencumbered process that provides Florida's returning citizens the ability to vote."

In August 2019, while the ACLU suit was before Hinkle's court, Gov. DeSantis sent a letter to the Florida Supreme Court asking that it interpret the constitutionality of SB 7066 under Florida law. The Court issued an advisory opinion on January 16 in which it answered only the question of whether "all terms of sentence" includes "legal financial obligations" (LFOs) imposed by a sentencing court. In its advisory opinion, the Florida Supreme Court says both that LFOs are covered by the amendment's "terms of sentence language," and that the amendment's sponsors made that clear to the Court in 2017 during a hearing to determine whether Amendment 4 could be included on the 2018 ballot: 

In its brief to this Court arguing in support of Amendment 4 being placed on the ballot, Amendment 4's sponsor, Floridians for a Fair Democracy (the Sponsor), asserted: "Specifically, the drafters intend that individuals with felony convictions, excluding those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, will automatically regain their right to vote upon fulfillment of all obligations imposed under their criminal sentence." [Emphasis used in the opinion]

During the oral argument, counsel for the Sponsor stated—consistent with the Sponsor's brief—that the operative language in Amendment 4 "means all matters—anything that a judge puts into a sentence." As noted in the Governor's letter, that oral argument involved discussion of LFOs—including fines, costs, and restitution—as well as the process for confirming payment of LFOs. Counsel for the Sponsor summed up by reiterating that Amendment 4 was intended to be "a restoration of voting rights under these specific conditions." It is beyond dispute that the Sponsor expressed the intention that "all terms of sentence" include all LFOs ordered by the sentencing judge.

"It is our opinion," the Florida Supreme Court concluded, "that the phrase 'all terms of sentence,' as used in article VI, section 4 [of the state Constitution], has an ordinary meaning that the voters would have understood to refer not only to durational periods but also to all [legal financial obligations] imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt."

Reason's C.J. Ciaramella, who has covered the restoration effort, reported that felony offenders collectively owe hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and fines. The Florida Court system, which is funded almost entirely by fees and fines, has about "115 different types of fees and surcharges, the second-highest number in the country," per the Fines & Fees Justice Center.

In an interview with The Appeal, Miami-Dade public defender Carlos Martinez observed that many fees and fines are not listed on sentencing documents. He estimated that 90 percent of those facing outstanding fees and fines in his county were affected by the practice.

On Friday, the Cato Institute and the R Street Institute filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th District arguing that "SB 7066, insofar as it excludes people who cannot afford to pay criminal court debt from participation in the democratic process, perhaps permanently, violates the bedrock guarantee of equal rights that every citizen enjoys."

Cato and R Street, who ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th District to uphold its injunction, write in their brief that "the unprecedented and growing imposition of fines, fees, court costs, and other financial obligations by state criminal courts has created an enormous class of citizens in debt to the government" and asks that the court "closely
scrutinize any law that purports to condition the ability to vote on payment of court
debt."

They add that "as a constitutional matter, this case falls squarely within the line of cases
beginning with Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12 (1956), which have held that a state denies equal protection of the laws when it conditions a right or benefit solely on the ability to pay." While Florida argued that felons have no "fundamental right" to vote, Cato and R Street argue that "once the state chooses to re-enfranchise that class, it may not discriminate on the basis of wealth absent a compelling government interest and narrowly tailored means."

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  1. *** scratches head ***

    If you owe taxes, are you allowed to vote?

    1. Right up to the point where you’re convicted of felony tax evasion.

  2. “all terms of sentence”

    How much do you have to pay a lawyer to keep a straight face when he argues in court that this is an ambiguous phrase?

    Look, the whole damn reason felons get sentenced to prison is because they can’t follow the rules of a civil society – which is the whole damn reason they don’t get to vote as well. If you’re not going to follow the rules, you don’t get a say in who gets elected to make and enforce the rules for the rest of us, fuckhead. You do your time, you repay your debt to society, we’ll give you a second chance to participate in our society. If you’re going to whine and cry that you shouldn’t have to follow the rules about how one goes about repaying your debt to society, it’s a pretty damn good indication you haven’t learned your fucking lesson about following the rules and we should lock your ass back up.

    1. It’s no wonder the Democrats think giving voting rights to felons will benefit them – people who don’t think the rules should apply to them are natural Democrats. Add in the right to steal shit that doesn’t belong to you and you’ve got a socialist.

      1. Felons by a large majority favor gun control.
        Can’t have their victims fighting back!

  3. NC is the same. Felons can vote, but they have to pay their fines and complete parole/probation first.

    1. Observe the misdirection: your taxes, their fines… in all such instances the reference is to a government’s taxes, exactions or extortion based on superstition and pseudoscience of the sort that made condoms a decadal chain-gang “misdemeanor” in the Grant Administration and beer a chain-gang felony in the Bert Hoover Administration. Demands of an armed and ignorant mob are that mob’s demands, and their victim’s tribulation.

  4. Koch / Reason libertarians should want as many felons voting as possible. Personally I think even convicted murderers and rapists should be allowed to vote from behind bars.

    1. So when a 4,000 inmate prison is located in a rural county (as they often are) with just 5,000 residents the inmates get to run the county?

      1. They usually don’t stick around the neighborhood of the rural prison after they finish their sentences.

  5. Cato and R Street, who ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th District to uphold its injunction, write in their brief that “the unprecedented and growing imposition of fines, fees, court costs, and other financial obligations by state criminal courts has created an enormous class of citizens in debt to the government” and asks that the court “closely
    scrutinize any law that purports to condition the ability to vote on payment of court
    debt.”
    make new laws because we don’t like the laws the legislature made.

    1. Good catch, but look at their altruistic motives. Florida politicians exterminated the Seminoles so they could have the Evergades. Their descendants now want statize the Everglades to protect endangered mosquito larvae from going the way of the Seminoles. Surely that justifies involuntary servitude of scofflaws who had plant leaves the politicos voted were Avatars of Satan, no? As part of the War on Delightful Plant Leaves for which brown people can be beaten, arrested and shot, all robbery is justifiable.

  6. We already have a clause against excessive fines in the 8th Amendment – the the Supreme Court has admitted that the states have to obey this.

    So if the fine is excessive, challenge it on that basis. If it’s not excessive, then wouldn’t it be perfectly legitimate to impose it?

    1. There you go! Render unto Caesar, or be flogged and crucified, sand person!

  7. I suspect the Democrats will find some way to raise money for large numbers of convicted felons to pay their fines. Presumably, Democrats will use nonprofit front groups so that nobody would mistake their activities for vote-buying.

    1. What is stopping Republicans from doing this? I suspect their are a few Christian fellowship organizations (more of a Repub base) that already help former inmates reintegrate into society. I’d suspect those organizations would actually have a better rate on return; less repeat offender rate; but that is a total guess. If Dems and Repubs activist actually work to help turn around these peoples lives, I don’t see a problem with it. If they just throw away money and these inmates get reincarnated then they won’t be voting very long.

      1. If they get reincarnated? Then they presumably will be eligible to vote 18 years after that happens.

  8. Almost immediately, civil liberties groups representing impoverished former felons sought an injunction against the state in federal court, claiming that SB 7066 essentially imposed a poll tax in violation of the 24th Amendment.

    That’s a pretty shoddy argument. It’s not a poll tax. If “all terms of the sentence” included fines, then that’s a term of the sentence. If we think the fines are too harsh for impoverished felons, then drop the fines. Either that, or change the law so that “all terms of the sentence” explicitly excludes fines and fees.

    1. Another way around this is to drop the requirement for voter ID. Then you wouldn’t know that the person voting is a current or former felon who has outstanding fines and fees.

    2. Does being on the sex offender registry affect the ability to “fulfill … all obligations imposed under their criminal sentence”?

      1. That’s not what’s in question here, but if I had to answer your question, sure, being on the registry very likely would fulfill your sentence requirements.

        Example:

        5 years in a correctional facillity
        3 years probation upon release
        Registration on applicable sex offender registry.

        Once you’ve accomplished those three goals, your voting rights can be restored.

        Being ON the registry doesn’t have to make you ineligible to vote, if the requirement is merely that you register. FAILING to register could render your voting rights null and void.

  9. If you haven’t paid your fines from being convicted as a felon, how can you be an ex-felon?

    You don’t become an ex-felon by escaping from prison.

    1. I suppose that, in one sense, as soon as you’ve finished committing your felony, you’re an ex-felon.

      So if someone just robbed in a bank, and are driving back home with the swag, would that make them an *ex* felon?

      /sarc

  10. Aren’t fines part of your sentence? And if so, have you actually served your sentence if you haven’t paid?
    Now, if we were to legalize all illegal aliens with the condition that they pay a fine, is Reason arguing that they should get to vote even if they haven’t paid their fines yet? Rhetorical question because we know the answer.

  11. “The Florida Court system, which is funded almost entirely by fees and fines, has about “115 different types of fees and surcharges, the second-highest number in the country,” per the Fines & Fees Justice Center.”

    One of many reasons why we have no state income tax 😉

    1. So, white collar ex criminals with wealthy relatives get to vote and poor ex cons don’t. Sounds like a poll tax.

  12. Getting back to the Constitution, the word _servitude_ appears in the 13th (which the looter courts interpret as an endorsement of military conscription), and the 14th, which defends all individual rights of citizens, especially VOTING rights, against coercive racial collectivists then still dominant in the Southlands of George Wallace Dixieland and the California border region.

  13. How does “all terms of sentence” not include fines and fees?

    1. Simple. The Amendment was not written particularly well, leaving it susceptible to multiple interpretations. Like most words in the English language, “terms” has multiple meanings that are commonly used. One is like “conditions” (terms of a contract) and would support including fines and fees in the terms of sentence. Another, however, refers to a definite period of time (prison term) and would be limited to the time that someone is imprisoned and on parole or probation. This would likely exclude the payment of fines and fees.

      While it may seem more natural to read it as conditions, the examples of the terms included in the Amendment are examples that fit the time definition, providing at least some support for the time-based definition under the canons of construction used to interpret legal writing . There should be plenty of evidence of the original public meaning in the debates and discussions leading up to its adoption, so as a practical matter it should be fairly easy to decide.

      1. Given that Amendment 4 was drafted by voting rights restoration activists, I suspect that they did intend the time meaning because that would lead to a greater restoration of voting rights. But their intent would not matter if that is not how the bill was described to the people during the election process.

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