Felon Voting Rights Trial Wraps Up in Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — Closing arguments were delivered Wednesday in a closely watched federal voting rights trial that could add hundreds of thousands of felons to Florida’s voter rolls and potentially affect the 2020 presidential election.

During their closings, attorneys for 17 plaintiffs with felony convictions tried to persuade Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle that SB 7066 — a state law requiring felons to pay all restitution, fines and fees before they are eligible to vote — creates onerous roadblocks that could prevent felons, who are disproportionately poor and black, from ever exercising the right to vote.

A polling place in St. Petersburg, Fla., this past March. (Courthouse News photo/Alex Pickett)

That amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax, the attorneys argued.

“The Florida Legislature crafted [a legal financial obligations] requirement that it knew would disproportionately harm black voters,” Leah Alden of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund told the judge.

In a strict partisan vote, Republican lawmakers passed SB 7066 last year, 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 itself did not mention restitution or fines.

Mohammad Jazil, an attorney for Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, dismissed the claims of lawmakers’ “racially discriminatory intent” and argued voters knew felons must pay all fines and fees before voting when they passed Amendment 4.

Jazil ,of the Tallahassee firm Hopping Green & Sams, warned a decision striking down SB 7066 could result in the abolition of the entire ballot measure.

“This is not something the state wants,” Jazil said. “We did not set loose the dogs of war, but we must go where they lead us.”

The case, Jones v. DeSantis, could have lasting implications for politics statewide and nationally as Florida’s elections typically have razor-thin margins. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump took the state with less than 120,000 votes.

More than 774,000 felons have some type of legal financial obligation, according to a study submitted to the court.

Throughout the seven-day trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys walked through testimony that shows felons must navigate a byzantine patchwork of record-keeping to learn about outstanding fines and fees before registering to vote.

“They could not have made a law that makes it more difficult for qualified voters to determine if they’re eligible to vote,” Julie Ebenstein of the American Civil Liberties Union said. “Some of our clients and other returning citizens have waited their entire life to be able to vote. Their constitutional rights cannot be sacrificed at the altar of bureaucratic feasibility on the part of the state.”

Judge Hinkle did not reveal how he would rule, but in comments during the trial, the Bill Clinton appointee has repeatedly criticized state election officials for not having a clear, concise process for determining which felons have outstanding fines and restitution that could prevent them from voting.

As his remarks came to a close, Jazil asked the judge if the state could lay out a more detailed plan in the event Hinkle rules SB 7066 unconstitutional.

“So you file hundreds of pages of briefs, you have preliminary injunction hearings, summary judgment hearings, seven days of trial, opportunity to make closing arguments and that’s not due process?” an irked Hinkle told the attorney. “You need more time?”

Hinkle refused the request.

“I’m going to make a ruling that I expect will be a whole lot easier to administer than anything you’ve dealt with so far,” the judge said. “That might be a bit of a bold statement.”

In October, Hinkle issued an injunction blocking SB 7066 and ruled felons who “genuinely” cannot pay restitution and fines can vote, although the ruling only applied to the 17 plaintiffs in the case. In February, the 11th Circuit upheld the injunction and later denied the state’s request for an en banc rehearing.

Earlier this month, the judge approved a class action certification in the case and signaled his decision in the trial will apply to all affected felons in Florida, not just the 17 plaintiffs protected by the initial injunction.

Hinkle indicated his decision will come soon. He also acknowledged the losing side will almost certainly appeal.

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