Voting Rights

Federal Judge: Florida Can't Block Voting Rights Because of Inability To Pay Court Fines

A law passed by Florida Republicans to limit a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felony offenders violates the 14th and 24th Amendments, the judge ruled.

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A federal judge ruled Sunday that Florida can't block former felony offenders from voting because they can't afford to pay court fines and fees.

In a 125-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle struck down parts of a law passed by Florida Republicans requiring those with felony records to pay off all fines and fees before they can regain the right to vote.

"This order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay," Hinkle wrote.

Hinkle ruled that denying voting rights on the basis of one's ability to pay fines discriminates on the basis of wealth and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. He also ruled that making voting eligibility rest on paying court fees—often tacked onto sentences to fill various judicial and law enforcement coffers—violates the 24th Amendment's ban on poll taxes because the fees are "a tax by any other name."

Hinkle also ruled that Florida can't disqualify felony offenders who had a court-appointed attorney or had their fines converted into civil liens, a move that could restore voting rights to a potentially massive amount of people.

The ruling is a significant victory for civil liberties groups and local activists who campaigned for Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters in 2018. That amendment was ostensibly supposed to restore voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million Florida residents with felony records—the largest single expansion of the franchise in recent history, and in a critical battleground state, no less.

"The Constitution is clear—you cannot make voting contingent on wealth," American Civil Liberties Union of Florida legal director Daniel Tilley said in a press release. "It should alarm Floridians that there are people occupying the highest echelons of political power in our state who fought to keep Florida tied to its racist past and bar people from voting."

Disagreement about how Amendment 4 should be implemented began immediately after it was passed. 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. 

Florida Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, argued that it did, and they passed a bill into law making voting eligibility contingent on paying off court fines and fees first. A panoply of civil rights groups filed lawsuits last year challenging the new law at both the state and federal levels.

In January, the majority-conservative Florida Supreme Court released an advisory opinion upholding the law, but lawyers for the state found a less friendly reception in federal court. 

Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction last October temporarily blocking the law and ordered state officials to come up with a clear and prompt process for determining whether a former offender has the ability to pay their fines and fees.

But at trial this April, the state's own expert witnesses had trouble parsing the complex system Florida created to solve this problem. State officials repeatedly admitted they couldn't easily track how much someone owed in criminal fines and fees; the documents were often scattered across multiple county agencies. In a withering opinion, Hinkle noted that "even with a team of attorneys and unlimited time, the State has been unable to show how much each plaintiff must pay to vote under the State's view of the law."

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 reported, Florida felony offenders would have to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars to restore their voting rights.

"This court decision adds another remarkable chapter in our fight as returning citizens to participate in our democracy," said Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, following Hinkle's ruling on Sunday. "We will remain vigilant in our commitment to place people over politics, and ensure that all returning citizens, no matter how they may vote, have an opportunity to possess what we believe to be the most endearing sign of citizenship, the right to vote."

DeSantis' office did not immediately return a request for comment.

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  1. Better than nothing. Cons shouldn’t lose voting rights, period.

    1. I am OK with them losing them during the period of their incarceration. Like many of the other rights that are temporarily suspended for prisoners.

      I don’t think that it should continue once they have been released, whether it’s parole or probation or they have finished their sentence.

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      2. Technically, you have not completed your sentence if you’re on parole. I’ve got no problem with them getting their rights back when they complete the terms of their sentence. Seems like to me that includes paying any fines or restitution, but I’m not a federal judge. A fine duly attached to a felony conviction is not at all a “poll tax”.

        I look forward to these same folks fighting this hard to restore the 2nd Amendment rights of these felons. Should I hold my breath? No probably not. Restoring their other Constitutional rights they have been deprived of doesn’t serve the Democrat party at all.

        1. Hence each ‘or’ between parole, probation, and completing the sentence. I know they are different things.

          I think that they should be allowed to vote once they are not incarcerated. Why they are not incarcerated could be any of the above, or other reasons. You think that only completing the sentence should suffice. There’s probably room to disagree, there.

          The fine is a more difficult issue, though. Who determines your ability to pay, for instance, and how is that accomplished?

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    3. I have to disagree, not because I think that stripping cons of voting rights is good policy, but because the Constitution should either be obeyed or amended. The 14th Amendment says that voting rights for cons is State’s-option, so it should be State’s-option. If you don’t like States having that option, then amend the Constitution to strike out that clause of the 14th Amendment.

      As for the ruling itself, I could buy a ruling that a fine that can’t be paid is ‘excessive’ and therefore prohibited under the 8th Amendment, but this “equal protection for poor people” ruling looks like it will cause mischief down the road. Worse, it looks like it was intended to cause mischief.

  2. I’m a nice guy: I’m for everyone voting for whoever they want. However, voting has externalities.

    1. Ugh. “Biden’s Diaper.”

      Underestimate him if you want. You’ll be that much more surprised when he destroys Drumpf in the debates and wins in a landslide this November.

      1. Biden is another Billary. Michael Moore said so.

      2. #BrownWave

  3. What am I missing? The court ruled that this is basically a poll tax, and it’s OK to have a poll tax as long as those on which it is enforced can afford to pay it? I thought poll taxes were unconstitutional full stop.

    1. Would it be a tax if it was all one word like penaltax?
      Polltax has a nice ring to it.

  4. This is another example of Republicans refusing to accept the willing of the people, as shown in a vote. That this had to go to court shows the contempt for the people’s will and the desire for control. I am happy with the courts decision, I await the next move.

    1. No it really isn’t. In order to get a ballot measure on the ballot in Florida, the sponsors have to explain the ballot measure to the Florida Supreme Court. When questioned, “a co-author of Amendment 4 said that financial obligations would be included in “all the terms” of a sentence. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida — a plaintiff in the lawsuit — and other groups also supported this interpretation, until they didn’t.” (This is in the linked article about the trouble with calculating the fees.) Not surprisingly, the Florida Supreme Court already confirmed that the Republican’s understanding of Amendment 4 was correct.

      If I remember correctly, the last time this case came up people pointed out that Florida also required felons to satisfy their financial obligations before getting their Second Amendment rights back as well.

      1. First I don’t think the voters intended for the law to be implemented in the way it was. Second if the law requiring fines be paid was in the law voted on why did the FL legislature pass a law requiring payment.

        1. “First I don’t think the voters intended for the law to be implemented in the way it was.”

          Okay. I do, at least when it comes to requiring LFOs to be included. I don’t think they gave much thought to the administrative burden of reinfranchising so many people all at once when every applicant still has to meet certain standards (including not being a murder or rapist).

          “Second if the law requiring fines be paid was in the law voted on why did the FL legislature pass a law requiring payment.”

          The law was necessary to implement Amendment 4. Ballot initiatives, particularly those proposed by citizen’s groups, generally don’t include the necessary framework to implement the amendment. As the court explained in dismissing the plaintiff’s claims for racial animus, “[m]ore importantly, there are other provisions in SB7066 that promote, rather than restrict, reenfranchisement. SB7066 provides that to be reenfranchised, a felon need not pay financial obligations that are not included in the four corners of the sentencing document or that accrue later.154 SB7066 allows courts to modify sentences to eliminate LFOs if specific conditions are met.155 And of less significance—it provides a remedy that, if not entirely illusory, will rarely matter—SB7066 authorizes courts to allow defendants to satisfy LFOs through community service.156”

          If Amendment 4 didn’t require the repayment of LFOs prior to reinfranchisement, why did the drafters of the amendment tell the Florida Supreme Court that it did?

  5. If fines are levied as part of a sentence for conviction, voting rights should not be restored before the sentence is fulfilled.
    If fines are levied as just red tape external to a sentence, that’s a different story.
    But where the fuck have libertarians gone with ditching any idea of personal responsibility and consequences, in favor of feel good progress?

    1. Good point.

  6. 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.

    It depends on what the definition of “all” is? And how is this a poll tax because rich people can pay the fees and poor people can’t? My guess is the majority of people going to prison for felonies aren’t rich people to start with, so is the whole issue of imprisoning people just a war on poverty?

    1. It turns out that the problem with Jim Crow-era poll taxes was just that some people couldn’t afford to pay them. Who knew.

      1. I’m not cool with anyone having to pay the fees / fines / etc. But I think it was worse for people who didn’t have the resources to fix it.

        Bad in both cases, worse in some than others. So it’s not a perfect ruling, but it’s better than the status quo ante.

  7. Hinkle ruled that denying voting rights on the basis of one’s ability to pay fines discriminates on the basis of wealth and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

    Does this same rationale apply to the right to keep and bear arms?

    1. No. Of course not. That would not benefit the Democrats.

  8. You haven’t squared your debt to society and victims until restitution to the court and state, and reparations to crime victims have been made. You knowingly chose to violate the law. Odds are that you have not been rehabilitated and will commit further crimes. In the meanwhile, a show of responsibility is required before the full privileges afforded to the the citizenry is restored.

  9. When they subscribed to the government, didn’t they read the terms of service?

  10. What is the general opinion on this? That amendment was ostensibly supposed to restore voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million Florida residents with felony records. rochester electrician

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