Voting Rights

Federal Appeals Court: Florida Can't Require Payment of Court Debts To Regain Voting Rights

"Equally guilty but wealthier felons are offered access to the ballot while these plaintiffs continue to be disenfranchised, perhaps forever."

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A federal appeals court ruled today that a new Florida law stripping voting eligibility from felony offenders who are too poor to pay off their court debts is unconstitutional.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld a temporary injunction issued by a federal judge last year in favor of 17 plaintiffs who sued the state, saying they were too poor to pay off their court-imposed fines and fees, and thus were barred from voting for no reason other than their poverty. The narrow ruling only applies to plaintiffs in the case, but it's a setback for Florida Republicans' attempts to limit the scope of a 2018  amendment to the state constitution that restores voting rights to felony offenders.

The 11th Circuit found that the state's law requiring the plaintiffs to pay their court debts before they can regain their voting rights violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Stripping voting rights from poor offenders who can't afford to pay fines and fees, the court wrote, doesn't advance the state's interest in collecting debts, and it creates disparate punishments based solely on wealth.

"Here, the plaintiffs are not punished in proportion to their culpability but to their wealth—equally guilty but wealthier felons are offered access to the ballot while these plaintiffs continue to be disenfranchised, perhaps forever," the opinion states. 

 In 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, an amendment to the state constitution that restored voting eligibility to an estimated 1.4 million residents with felony records. At the time, it was hailed as one of the largest single expansions of voting rights in U.S. history.

Prior to the passage of Amendment 4, Florida had one of the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country—a vestige of the state's "Black Codes," passed during Reconstruction. It was only one of four states that imposed lifetime bans on voting for people with felony records.

However, disputes over Amendment 4's implementation began almost immediately. The language of the amendment says felony offenders regain eligibility to vote "upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation," but it does not say whether "all terms" included financial obligations imposed by courts.

Florida Republicans argued it did. (Notably, so did lawyers for groups supporting the amendment before it was passed.) The GOP-controlled state legislature then introduced and passed a bill to require payment of court-imposed debts as a condition of regaining one's right to vote.

However, Democrats and civil liberties groups say the requirement to pay court debts amounts to a "poll tax" and stymies the will of Florida voters, who passed Amendment 4 by 64 percent.

A flurry of lawsuits followed. Last October, a U.S. District Court judge issued a temporary injunction, ruling that the state must create a system to determine ability to pay. "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 judge wrote.

In January, the majority-conservative Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion upholding the state law.

Civil liberties groups representing the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice, applauded today's opinion.

"The Eleventh Circuit told the state of Florida what the rest of America already knows," Myrna Perez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center, said in a statement. "You can't condition the right to vote on a person's wealth." 

The Fines & Fees Justice Center has found that Florida courts, which are funded almost entirely through fines and fees, had "115 different types of fees and surcharges, the second highest number in the country." As a result, WLRN reports, Florida felony offenders will have to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars to restore their voting rights. "Across the state, over $1 billion in felony fines were issued between 2013 and 2018 alone, according to annual reports from the Florida Clerks and Comptrollers, a statewide association. Over that five year period, an average of only 19 percent of that money was paid back per year."

The ruling is far from the end of the fight over Amendment 4. A full trial in the lawsuit is set for April, at which point the temporary injunction will expire. In a tweet, a spokesperson for Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' office said the state will appeal today's ruling and seek an en banc rehearing at the 11th Circuit.

Both sides expect the case to be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

NEXT: Trump's Continuing Commentary on Criminal Cases Reflects His Disdain for the Rule of Law

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  1. Not a surprising finding by the Fed court. It’s not too hard to see requiring repayment of fines in order to vote as a poll tax.

    1. “Very well. Do a hundred hours of community service, and then we’ll let you vote.”

      1. Unfortunately, I think it would still be considered a “tax,” in as it “steals” the labor of the person required to do the pro-bono work.

        1. No, actually that is addressed in the lawsuit.

    2. The 11th Circuit did not consider the arguments based on the 24th Amendment. This decision is entirely based on the felons’ equal protection arguments.

      “Florida Republicans argued it did. (Notably, so did lawyers for groups supporting the amendment before it was passed.)”

      This is surprising, and could play an interesting role in the severability analysis if the case proceeds forward. If this is really how the constitutional amendment was sold to the people, there is a decent chance that the entire amendment could be struck down in a classic Pyrrhic victory for the felons.

  2. OK, fine, increase fines on rich felons so they have to sweat a little before paying their fines off.

    1. Some Euro countries do that, or used to. I recall speeding tickets which could run a couple of thousand dollars for very wealthy individuals, as opposed to fifty dollars for “regular” folks.

  3. 17 plaintiffs who sued the state, saying they were too poor to pay off their court-imposed fines and fees, and thus were barred from voting for no reason other than their poverty

    I really wanted a Mercedes but I couldn’t afford one so I stole one. And now they’re locking me in jail for no other reason but that I’m not one of those rich folks who can afford a Mercedes. Attica! Attica! Attica!

    If paying off the court-imposed fines and fees was part of the sentence, then you haven’t finished your sente

    1. You need a lesson in analogy.

      Bad.

      1. Yeah, but not finishing the sentence was clever.

  4. Authoritarian bigots lose again.

    Libertarians applaud.

    Faux libertarians mutter bitterly about all of this damned progress.

    1. What kind of forward-thinking policies are convicted felons are more likely to vote for than other voters?

      1. #FelonsAreNaturalLibertarians
        #(BecauseTheyVoteDemocrat)

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  6. Dear God.
    When you let them out, they should be completely free (again).
    You know, voting, free speeching, assembling, keeping and bearing, the whole thing.

    1. + Yep. If someone isn’t “trustworthy” enough to have a firearm or vote, should they really be allowed on the streets, with all those knives, cars, and other things with which they could get in trouble?

  7. All citizens should have the right to vote.
    That is one of the entitlements of citizenship.

    It doesn’t matter if a citizen has broken the law or not. That person is still a citizen and still should have the legal ability to vote.

    It is a devaluation of the entire concept of citizenship to take away the franchise from citizens who have done nothing worthy of losing citizenship itself.

    1. Well said, Jeff. I too want convicted serial killers to have just as much input in the political process as I do.

      #LibertariansForSerialKillerVoting

      1. I’d rather have serial killers voting instead of asshole trolls like yourself.

        But in all seriousness, if you don’t want a citizen to vote, because you think the citizen has committed a crime so heinous that he/she doesn’t deserve to vote, then make loss of citizenship a punishment for that crime. Such as, for instance, the crime of treason. If not, then STFU.

        1. Broadly, the night-watchman state. If you don’t know what that means, you can read about it here:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night-watchman_state

          Hope this helps.

          1. Oops, response in the wrong thread. Sorry about that.

        2. Not sure why you’d think I’m a troll because I …… agree with you?

          In fact, after Palin’s Buttplug and Michael Hihn, you might be my favorite commenter here. I really admire your principled support for letting Charles Manson spend decades voting from behind bars because he was never technically stripped of citizenship.

    2. If you’re in prison, it’s because you’ve failed to obey society’s rules on how to behave. And now we’re supposed to let you help set the rules that you’re not obeying?

      1. No one is arguing that serial killers should be elected mayor. But a citizen is entitled to the privileges of citizenship. That includes voting. If you don’t want a citizen to vote, then take away the citizenship. But again don’t devalue the meaning of citizenship by depriving some of its benefits.

        1. No need to specify serial killers. They’re either still undiscovered (And therefore freemen) or convicted to serve multiple life sentences. They’re not the sort of free paroled felons who are returning to society.

          And I agree. Even though I suspect they’re overwhemingly likely to vote for people I don’t like, they still have a right to vote. Just like we don’t make anyone swear they aren’t communist in order to register to vote.

          1. I think of citizenship as akin to membership in a club. A member, by definition, has all the rights and privileges of membership. A person who does not have all the rights and privileges of membership is not fully a member.

            1. By which argument we must conclude just-born infants either aren’t citizens, or that voting is not a right and privilege of citizenship. Since birthright citizenship is indisputably established in the law, we must conclude the second.

  8. Lady Justice can not look at my skin color, or my religion, or my ideologies when deciding how to treat me. So far so good. The left, in this case, is saying that she CAN look in my wallet and treat me differently based on what she finds there. If there IS money, she can take it. If there is NO money, she shrugs and passed me on and says she’s done with me.

    They say a person can not be punished based on wealth. As far as that goes, I agree absolutely. I, however, I also think you can not BENEFIT based on wealth. The left would agree if that only means the rich can not be treated favorably. However, they quickly scream bloody murder when you say the poor should not benefit more than the rich, either. To do so is the state not treating people equally. The cognative dissonance required is massive on their part.

  9. People in prison should only be allowed to vote on things like cell block captain and prom queen.

    1. you mean cell block captain and shower bitch, right?

  10. “Prior to the passage of Amendment 4, Florida had one of the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country—a vestige of the state’s “Black Codes,” passed during Reconstruction. It was only one of four states that imposed lifetime bans on voting for people with felony records.”

    No, the “Black Codes” didn’t let *any* black people vote, felons or not.

    The felon-disenfranchisement clause was in Florida’s Reconstruction Constitution, approved by the “Radical” Congress of 1868. Felon disenfranchisement – and exclusion from public office – was all the rage at the time, since it was a way to take votes away from former confederate “traitors” whether they’d been convicted or not.

    It wasn’t until 1872 that Congress let most ex-Confederate leaders hold office again.

    Jim Crow disenfranchisement is exemplified by the state of Mississippi, where they had some research done to see which kinds of felonies were mainly committed by white, and which by blacks. They disenfranchised people convicted of what Mississippi considered “black” crimes *while letting those convicted of “white” crimes to keep exercising the franchise.” It took years before Mississippi took votes away from convicted burglars, burglary being deemed a white crime.

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  12. The 11th Circuit found that the state’s law requiring the plaintiffs to pay their court debts before they can regain their voting rights violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

    This is utterly ridiculous. The Fourteenth Amendment, in Section 2, explicitly contemplates the lawfulness of arbitrary restrictions on the right to vote by declaring them to affect the apportionment of the House. If they were outright banned by the Equal Protection Clause in Section 1, Section 2 would be a complete nullity. Any judge that rules the Section 1 of the 14th Amendment prohibits a restriction on the franchise should be removed from office as a judge.

    There are four Constitutional amendments regulating restriction of the franchise, the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments. Congress, with the explicit power to enforce them by “appropriate legislation”, may enact broader anti-disenfranchisement laws (with the intent of preventing violations of those four). And it is at least plausible to argue the 24th is being violated here. But the Equal Protection Clause is irrelevant and the judges citing it are either incompetent or criminally usurping policy authority rightfully belonging to the State of Florida.

    1. Perhaps. On the other hand the 24th amendment explicitly prohibits poll taxes and requiring payment of fines to regain voting rights sounds an awful lot like a poll tax.

      So the reasoning in nonsense, but the end result is still correct.

  13. The Florida law that the federal appeals court ruled is unconstitutional was nothing more than a Republican attempt to suppress the votes of people that they knew would be very unlikely to vote for them.

    Any other interpretation is absurd.

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  16. I can not understand the Republican mind that would disenfranchise groups rather than make a case for that groups vote. If you think you have good ideas you should try to sell those ideas to the public. The fact that Republican try to shrink the size of the electorate makes me think they have little in the way of ideas to sell.

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