ATLANTA (CN) — Florida can condition voting rights on the payment of fines, fees and restitution by felons, the en banc 11th Circuit ruled Friday.
The 6-4 decision by the Atlanta-based appeals court affects an estimated 775,000 Florida felons who have some type of legal financial obligation – a potentially large voting block in a crucial swing state.
“States may restrict voting by felons in ways that would be impermissible for other citizens,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote for the majority.
In the 200-page opinion, Pryor concluded the requirement that felons pay all financial obligations before voting does not violate their due process rights or impose a poll tax.
“Like requiring voters to prove their identity, requiring felons to complete their full criminal sentences falls squarely within the state’s power to fix core voter qualifications,” wrote Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee.
The ruling follows a year of litigation after the passage of SB 7066, a law requiring felons to pay all restitution, fines and fees before they are eligible to vote.
Republican state lawmakers passed the controversial measure 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.
Last year, the Campaign Legal Center, ACLU and NAACP sued the state and, after an eight-day trial in May, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, a Bill Clinton appointee, ruled the 24th Amendment prohibits Florida from conditioning voting on payment of fines and fees.
The law, Hinkle said, was a “pay-to-vote system.” His decision required county supervisors of elections to allow felons to fill out a form attesting to indigency before registering.
Days later, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis lodged an appeal to the 11th Circuit, which halted the voting registration of thousands of felons in the run-up to the August primary and November general election.
Friday’s ruling overturns Hinkle’s injunction against SB 7066.
In their dissent, U.S. Circuit Judges Beverly Martin, Charles Wilson, Adalberto Jordan and Jill Pryor took issue with the state’s byzantine patchwork of record-keeping that prevents many felons from learning about outstanding financial obligations before registering to vote. Florida does not have a statewide database of those who owe restitution and fines.
“The majority breezes over the infirmities of the process,” wrote Martin, a Barack Obama appointee. “But I cannot so easily condone a system that is projected to take upwards of six years simply to tell citizens whether they are eligible to vote … and which ultimately throws up its hands and denies citizens their ability to vote because the state can’t figure out the outstanding balances it is requiring those citizens to pay.”
The dissenting judges were all appointed by Democratic presidents.
The majority – Pryor, Kevin Newsome, Elizabeth Branch, Britt Grant, Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa – were appointed by Republican presidents.
Luck and Lagoa are former Florida Supreme Court justices appointed by DeSantis before President Donald Trump tapped them for the 11th Circuit. The governor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
“This is a deeply disappointing decision,” said Paul Smith, vice president at the Campaign Legal Center. “Florida’s voters spoke loud and clear when nearly two-thirds of them supported rights restoration at the ballot box in 2018. Nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”
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.
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