Florida Conditions on Felon Voting Die in 11th Circuit

(CN) — A federal injunction blocking a Florida law that requires felons to pay restitution and fines before being able to vote will stand, the 11th Circuit ruled Tuesday, denying the state’s request for an en banc rehearing.

Last month, a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court upheld an order out of Tallahassee that halted the implementation of Senate Bill 7066, which required felons to pay all restitution, fines and fees before they are eligible to vote.

Former felon Brett DuVall kisses his wife Dottie after he registered to vote in Orlando, Fla., in January 2019. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Following that decision, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis petitioned the 11th Circuit to hear the case en banc, or by the full court.

Tuesday’s brief ruling denying the request states that no judge requested a rehearing. The 11th Circuit includes two judges that DeSantis previously appointed to the Florida Supreme Court — Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck — before President Donald Trump tapped them for the federal appeals court.

Republican lawmakers passed the controversial law last year, just months after Florida voters overwhelming approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” The amendment did not mention restitution or fines.

The injunction, however, only applies to the 17 plaintiffs in the case and still leaves an estimated 1.4 million Florida felons in limbo.

The underlying case, Jones v. DeSantis, is set to go to trial in April. The legal battle could also head to the U.S. Supreme Court, but likely not in time for the November presidential election.

“We are disappointed in the denial of a rehearing before the full court,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “None the less, the case is going to full trial in three weeks.”

Attorneys for the governor’s office have maintained felons have other ways to overcome their financial obligations and vote, including petitioning a court to convert the fines to community service hours, asking a collections company or victim to forgive the debts, or seeking full clemency through the state.

But after hearing oral arguments in January, the 11th Circuit panel found that the financial requirements of SB 7066 violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

In a study submitted to the court, Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, found nearly 80% of felons have outstanding debts that could prevent them from voting.

Prior to the passage of Amendment 4, Florida had the highest number of disenfranchised felons in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project. The Sunshine State was one of only three states that banned ex-convicts from voting for life.

In the first three months after the amendment took effect in January 2019, more than 2,000 formerly incarcerated Floridians registered to vote. Advocates say thousands more have registered since.

County elections supervisors have expressed frustration by the lack of direction from the state. Florida does not have a statewide database for elections officials to check if felons paid all their fines and restitution. Some county elections supervisors have urged felons to register, even if they are unsure whether they owe anything.

“Inability to pay should never be a barrier to the ballot box,” Danielle Lang, co-director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement. “It remains the state’s responsibility to comply with court orders and provide a uniform process that gives all Floridians with past felony convictions access to voting, without discriminating on the basis of wealth.”

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