Delivering a victory to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a divided federal appeals court on Friday upheld the constitutionality of a Florida law requiring felons to complete all financial terms of their sentences — including paying fines, fees, costs and restitution — to be eligible to vote.
The 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals, in a 6-4 ruling, struck a major blow to voting-rights groups that challenged the law, approved by Republican legislators and signed by DeSantis last year. The law was aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole and probation.”
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told reporters Friday evening that the Atlanta-based appeals court’s ruling was “a severe blow to democracy and also to the hundreds of thousands of returning citizens that want nothing more than to feel like they’re part of this country.”
The decision reversed a May ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who said the state could not deny voting rights to felons who genuinely could not afford to pay court-ordered debts. Hinkle’s ruling would have allowed hundreds of thousands of felons to register and vote in this year’s presidential election without paying outstanding legal financial obligations.
DeSantis appealed the ruling, and the 11th Circuit made the unusual move of granting his request for an “en banc,” or full court, initial hearing.
Friday’s 60-page majority opinion, authored by Chief Judge William Pryor, found fault with the type of legal analysis used in February by a three-judge panel of the appeals court. That panel upheld a preliminary injunction Hinkle issued in October, finding that requiring felons to pay financial obligations to vote amounted to wealth-based discrimination.
“That decision was wrong,” Pryor wrote in Friday’s majority opinion joined by Judges Kevin Newsom, Elizabeth Branch, Britt Grant, Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa.
Luck and Lagoa were appointed by DeSantis to the Florida Supreme Court last year but left the state court after President Donald Trump tapped them for the 11th Circuit.
Florida “withholds the franchise from any felon, regardless of wealth, who has failed to complete any term of his criminal sentence, financial or otherwise,” Pryor emphasized.
“It does not single out the failure to complete financial terms for special treatment,” Pryor added.
The majority also disputed arguments by plaintiffs that linking voting rights and finances amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”
Amendment 4 and the 2019 law are “markedly different” from poll taxes, Pryor wrote.
“They do not make affluence or the payment of a fee an ‘electoral standard.’ They instead impose a different electoral standard: to regain the right to vote, felons, rich and poor, must complete all terms of their criminal sentences,” he said.
Unlike a poll tax, the requirement to fulfill all terms of a sentence is “highly relevant to voter qualifications,” the chief judge said.
“It promotes full rehabilitation of returning citizens and ensures full satisfaction of the punishment imposed for the crimes by which felons forfeited the right to vote,” he wrote. “Monetary provisions of a sentence are no less a part of the penalty that society imposes for a crime than terms of imprisonment. Indeed, some felons face substantial monetary penalties but little or no prison time.”
But in a scalding 93-page dissent, Judge Adalberto Jordan lambasted the state for its inability to properly screen felons’ voter applications. Florida officials have been unable to tell the 17 named plaintiffs in the case the amounts of their outstanding legal financial obligations, or LFOs, Jordan noted.
“So felons who want to satisfy the LFO requirement are unable to do so, and will be prevented from voting in the 2020 elections and far beyond. Had Florida wanted to create a system to obstruct, impede, and impair the ability of felons to vote under Amendment 4, it could not have come up with a better one,” Jordan wrote in a dissent joined by Judges Beverly Martin, Jill Pryor and Charles Wilson. Jill Pryor and Martin also wrote separate dissents echoing the umbrage in Jordan’s opinion.
The vast majority of Floridians convicted of felonies are indigent, “the record is replete” with examples of situations where sentencing documents do not clearly identify how much felons owe, and Florida’s records “contain substantial inconsistencies,” Jordan wrote, recounting evidence revealed during a trial.
But in an 18-page opinion concurring with the majority, Lagoa gave a history of felons’ voting rights in Florida and said “there is nothing unconstitutional about Florida’s re-enfranchisement scheme.”
Lagoa argued that Amendment 4 is an expansion of the state’s existing executive clemency process.
The law that implemented Amendment 4 also provides additional ways for felons to meet their financial obligations, she noted. It allows payees to terminate the debts, allows courts to convert the monetary obligations to community service and gives judges the authority to modify the original sentencing orders, Lagoa wrote.
“All indigent felons have alternative avenues available, and some will succeed in pursuing those avenues,” she added.
Voting-rights groups that challenged the 2019 law decried Friday’s ruling and indicated they would not drop the legal battle.
“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote. The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy,” Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in a prepared statement.
But DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo said the 11th Circuit’s decision affirmed that “all terms” of sentence “means all terms.”
“Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive,” Piccolo said in an email.
William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion that Florida officials are not under any obligation to provide information about financial obligations to potential voters, referring to the issue as “a fundamental confusion in this litigation.”
“States are constitutionally entitled to set legitimate voter qualifications through laws of general application and to require voters to comply with those laws through their own efforts. So long as a state provides adequate procedures to challenge individual determinations of ineligibility — as Florida does — due process requires nothing more,” he said.
But Jordan vehemently disagreed.
“I know of no cases (or other authorities) that say or hold that a state can impose a condition for the exercise of a right or privilege, and then refuse to explain to a person what the condition consists of or how to satisfy it,” Jordan said.
Florida lacks a single database that felons, attorneys or state and local elections officials can consult to determine whether people have outstanding financial obligations. County officials are handling the process differently, according to court testimony.
“What a great system Florida has set up. If the stakes were not so high, it would be laughable and deserving of a Dave Barry article lampooning the state’s bureaucratic incompetence and malfeasance,” Jordan scoffed. “The right to vote — even if considered a state-created benefit for re-enfranchised felons — is too important to be denied in this inconsistent, unorderly, and nonsensical manner.”
In a separate opinion addressing concerns raised by the dissenting judges, William Pryor elaborated on the need to “to explain a difficult truth about the nature of the judicial role.”
“Our duty is not to reach the outcomes we think will please whomever comes to sit on the court of human history,” he wrote in a one-page opinion, joined by Lagoa.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida
Concerned Citizen says
The wording was clear as day in Amendment 4.
Rights may be restored upon completion of all sentencing requirements. It’s neither the courts fault or societies fault that a felon can’t pay their fines and restitution. Perhaps the felon should have thought about that before they went and victimized someone.
As a victim of a crime.
You spend countless hours with lawyers cops and court dates. You miss work and have to deal with insurance adjusters who are moetly as bad as the felon who victimized you. In my case since my home was burglarized and they smashed a sliding glass door to gain entry You garner expenses out of pocket and loose your sense of security. Let me tell you you don’t sleep much the first few weeks after a crime like that. And the first 3 nights I went to a hotel for fear that they might come back while I’m home.
In the course of the investigation the two yes (career offenders) already on probation were caught. Doing the same thing to others. They were arrested and eventually sentenced to prison again and had to pay fines and restitution. 10 years later I still haven’t seen that restitution and probably never will. But yet my life was changed forever coming home from work that day.Ironically at the time I was a Fire Fighter and had helped save a motor vehicle accident victim early that morning.
So you’ll understand if I seem bitter and uncaring. I didn’t force them to break into my home and steal valuable items and irreplacable family heirlooms. I also didn’t ask them to smash an expensive sliding glass door because my house was already secured.
Seems society doesn’t much care about victims rights anymore. You all would rather raise hell because most of these multiple offender felons can’t get your favorite politicians in office.
Instead of investing all this time on people who don’t give a damn already. Start taking care of their victims.
Jimmy Hoffa says
Look, a felony means it was something serious. Someone, or many, were victimized by your actions. You have to pay for the damages you caused to make your victims whole again. That’s all there is to it. No one’s being “disenfranchised”. Take care of YOUR responsibilities so that WE as a society can coexist peacefully. Do that, and vote again. Welcome back.
Ironically, I think, Republicans are biting their noses off to spite their two-faces. Millions and millions in white collar crimes are commited annually, and a vast majority of those are commited by registered Republicans with their non-sensical mantre of less regulations and fewer taxes so I can stay wealthy. Well, they’ll at least not be able to support their cronies with a vote!
But given all that, there is no real tracking system in place anyways of who qualifies for what. You get a SSN, you get a license with a verifiable address, you register to vote. These systems are hardly cross-linked. Facebook knows far far more about you than state-run databases. I was convicted of a felony 40 years ago. A dine and dash in the 70s. Remember, this country was throwing away keys for even breathing wrong back then! Finished probation (and paid fines!) 35 years ago. Know what? Have been voting in Florida ever since. If you’re a verifiable legal resident, and pay any smidgeon of taxes, sales, property or otherwise, and paid all fines, you get to vote. Its up to the government to figure out how to accurately do what social media giants figured out decades ago.
So while there will still be thousands that have yet to clear their duties and obligations, there are still HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS just like me who are “officially” now able to vote, and that alone has the deplorables shitting bricks.
Justin Case says
This has nothing to do with Republicans, or Democrats. If you are sentenced to jail time, and or monetary fines, then you must pay the fines to have your sentence completed. The court ruling does NOT force felons to pay to vote. They have to pay to complete their sentence. Why is this so hard to comprehend? If you want to be able to vote upon parole only, put it on the next ballot. Just be aware, I will vote no to that idea. You can vote when your sentence is COMPLETE.
It’s nice when the voters will and democracy work.
We now see Trump’s legal legacy at work. Jim Crow lives on as I see no directives in the ruling ordering the state to reorganize its fining system to give felons access and information to clear their debts.
Karma Is A Bitch says
If you can’t pay the penalty, don’t do the felony. In this instance, felons must literally pay their debt to society.
Judges Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck committed, under oath, during their Senate confirmation to recuse themselves from cases in which they had previously participated.
Judges Lagoa and Luck were involved in the court’s decision to grant en banc review and in the majority opinion to disenfranchise potential voters despite previously participating in an advisory opinion on the law as members of the Supreme Court of Florida.
The Code of Conduct for United States Judges directs a judge to disqualify themselves if he or she “participated as a judge (in a previous judicial position)…concerning the proceeding or has expressed an opinion concerning the merits of the particular case in controversy.”
If judges cannot uphold their basic ethical obligations, the public has little reason to place its trust in our courts system.
Thank God there are some Federal Judges left that still have common sense and know the law. Too many judges have gone way too far to the left and have become radicalized in their decisions. Judge Emmet Sullivan is a prime example of one.
In my estimation this verdict is correct,if part of the sentence includes restitution ,fines etc,then that obligation has to be fulfilled to regain the right to vote. If these criminals are so worried about voting,why did they commit a crime in the first place? And I dont want to hear the bullshit that “I cant afford to repay my monetary debts”,when you became a convicted felon YOU changed the rules for yourself. I speak from experience ,my son is a convicted felon and has a shitty job ,for the last 8 years he has been clean and sober and crime free, and because of that I have helped him financially to do what he needed to do to regain his rights,with the caveat that if he screws up again he is on his own.Once a person becomes a felon they have to EARN the right to vote again and that means fulfilling all the obligations of their sentence. I am all for giving someone a second chance if they earn it.
R. Griffin says
Voting is a privilege; not a right. A privilege for LEGAL US citizens in good standing and owe society no debt. Felons should be disenfranchised until their debts are paid. Felons in jail, or on probation, are still repaying said debt. People living in this country illegally have no say in our elections just as I have no say in Mexico’s elections; nor can I live their illegally.
Criminals should be disenfranchised. A felony is a serious crime (murder, rape, or robbery, etc). This is why convicted felons have been denied various privileges granted to other citizens; including full freedom. Voting, along with the other restricted freedoms, are part of their punishment. Why should a convicted murderer have a right to vote when the person they murdered lost their right to vote?
The matter shouldn’t even be considered by any court. Life is made up of choices. Choose you this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord and vote TRUMP…and Sheriff Staly for upholding our Constitutional Right not to be forced to wear the propaganda mask for the fake pandemic that the CDC was finally forced to admit they lied about…only 6%. SMH
jane Gentile-Youd says
It cost taxpayers heaps of money to house, feed, clothe a convicted felon. A fine to help cover the costs can be paid by doing Community Service work equal to the dollar amount owed. ( Yes it is unfortunate that people have improperly been convicted as felons but they too must pay the applicable fines imposed with their sentence). Community Service is a very fair requirement in lieu of cash up front,
” Don’t do the crime, you won’t do the time but if you do be ready to cough up the dime”
Victims deserve better says
If you do the crime, you do the time, and you PAY the fine.
E. Hoffa says
POTUS Trump has nothing to do with this court ruling! Read the law that was approved by the FL voters!