TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) – Should Florida require felons to pay all fines and restitution before regaining their right to vote?
That’s the question posed by Governor Ron DeSantis to the Florida Supreme Court during oral arguments Wednesday, seeking to clarify the language of Amendment 4, a ballot measure passed last year that restores the right to vote for most felons who complete their sentence.
The Republican governor petitioned the court in August after groups representing felons across the state filed a series of federal lawsuits seeking to overturn a recent law that required the payment of fines, fees and restitution before ex-offenders could cast a ballot. Criminal justice reform advocates say lawmakers tried to thwart the wishes of Florida voters.
A federal judge recently put the law on hold until a March 2020 trial and hinted in an opinion that the Florida Supreme Court could ultimately decide whether the language of Amendment 4 implies payment of legal financial obligations.
The justices’ decision hinges on the language of the amendment that restores voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation,” but also the will of the voters, who passed the ballot measure with almost 65% of the vote.
“This court’s analysis of Amendment 4 should begin and end with its plain language,” the governor’s general counsel, Joseph Jacquot, told the court. “As stated to this court on the proposed amendment, all terms of a sentence means all matters.”
The justices repeatedly interrupted attorneys from both sides to parse out the meanings of words, such as the phrase “including parole and probation.”
“The question that we’re asked to answer is, ‘Is a cost or fee a sentence?'” Justice Robert Luck, a DeSantis appointee, said. “Because it’s not probation and it’s not parole … It has to be like those things. In other words, it can’t be apples-to-oranges … How then do we define this basket?”
“That basket is defined by what is in the judge’s sentencing order,” Jacquot replied.
Luck later countered that each sentencing order is different, so voters may not understand what “completing a sentence” means in a broader sense.
“I think voters certainly understand these are individualized decisions made by courts everyday and that whatever the judge hands down, those debts to society have to be repaid before one regains his voting rights,” Jacquot said.
Mohammad Jazil, an attorney with Hopping Green & Sams who represents Secretary of State Laurel Lee, asked the court for consistency from the ballot language approved by the Florida Supreme Court in 2017 to interpreting the passed ballot measure.
“The words should be final, the meaning should not be changed,” said Jazil. “If we now find an ambiguity after the fact, it becomes a conundrum before us.”
Justice Barbara Lagoa, another DeSantis appointee, agreed and pointed out various editorials and letters written by Amendment 4 proponents that included fines and restitution as part of completing a sentence.
“How do we deal with the fact that the parties here have said at some point that all terms of sentence includes parole, fines, restitution?” Lagoa asked Molly Danahy of the Campaign Legal Center.
“None of the parties here, nor the proponents [of Amendment 4], are the voters and their statements cannot be impugned to the voters,” Danahy said. “I think that the voters saw many things interpreting Amendment 4 before they voted … but what was before them in the ballot box was in the text of the amendment.”
Criminal justice groups argue fines and restitution will prevent many felons from voting in the near future and possibly indefinitely.
“Every person unable to pay is serving a life sentence,” Anton Marino of the American Civil Liberties Union told the court.
Advocates point to ex-offenders like Miami resident Karen Leicht. The 62-year-old paralegal served 28 months in prison for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and completed her sentence in 2016. But Leicht still owes $59 million in restitution.
“You think I can ever pay that?” Leicht told a Florida Senate panel this spring. “I’ll never vote in this state again.”
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.
Although the state allowed felons to ask for clemency, the process was long and arbitrary. Former Governor Rick Scott only approved 10% of cases before the clemency board during his eight years in office. Notably, those granted clemency did not have to pay restitution or fines before regaining the right to vote.
In the first three months after the amendment took effect in January, more than 2,000 formerly incarcerated Floridians registered to vote. Criminal justice advocates say thousands more have registered since.
Both political parties know adding thousands of new voters to the rolls has the potential to impact politics statewide and nationally. The last two gubernatorial elections in Florida were decided by 1 percentage point.
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump took the state with less than 120,000 votes.