Federal court rules Florida felons must pay off debts to state before voting

Appeals court says state does not have to say how much is owed in decision that could bar hundreds of thousands from polls

Florida can require people with felony convictions to repay all outstanding debts before they are eligible to vote again, but it does not have to tell them how much they owe, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday. The hugely consequential decision will probably shut out hundreds of thousands of voters in the key battleground state in this fall’s presidential election.

The 6-4 ruling from the US court of appeals for the 11th circuit came in a lawsuit challenging a 2019 Republican-backed law imposing the restrictions. After Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a 2018 measure – often called Amendment 4 – to automatically restore voting rights to people once they complete their criminal sentences, Republicans authored a new law requiring repayment of all fines, fees and court costs before those people could vote again. An estimated 774,000 people with felonies in Florida have outstanding debts, which many cannot afford to pay, and the challengers in the case argued the state was essentially conditioning the right to vote on a tax, which is unconstitutional.

“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,” said Julie Ebenstein, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case from the American Civil Liberties Union.

In late May, the US district judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida could not block people from voting if they genuinely could not pay. But on Friday, the majority in the 11th circuit ruled Florida officials had broad discretion to choose the conditions people with felony convictions had to meet before their voting rights were restored. The financial issues at question in the case, the majority wrote, “are directly related to legitimate voter qualifications”.

“States may restrict voting by felons in ways that would be impermissible for other citizens,” the court said, pointing to a 1974 supreme court case. “The people of Florida could rationally conclude that felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including paying their fines, fees, costs, and restitution, are more likely to responsibly exercise the franchise than those who have not.”

Even though Florida requires people with felonies to repay financial obligations before they can vote, figuring out how much they owe is often impossible, even for state officials. There is no centralized place to look up how much someone owes. Some criminal sentences are from decades ago and record-keeping of court payments is often shoddy. Local clerks testified during a trial in May that there are often conflicting amounts in records.

But in an extraordinary determination, the 11th circuit said on Friday that while Florida could require payment to vote, it had no obligation to tell people with felonies how much they owed. Florida does not have a constitutional obligation to provide that information to voters, Judge William Pryor wrote for the majority. The 11th circuit is one of three appellate courts the Trump has recently flipped to have a majority of Republican-appointed judges. Five of the six judges in Friday’s decision were Trump appointees.

Florida hits criminal defendants with a dizzying array of court costs and fees, used to fund the courts, which people with felonies must repay before they can vote again. Hinkle struck down that provision of the law, saying it amounted to a “tax by any other name”. But the 11th circuit overturned that on Friday, saying that court costs and fees served a legitimate purpose because they were part of a criminal’s punishment.

About 85,000 people with felony convictions have registered to vote since Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019. It will take Florida’s top election officials about six years to verify that all of them are eligible to vote. In a small win for the challengers in the case, the 11th circuit said on Friday that those 85,000 would remain eligible to vote until or unless the state determined they were ineligible.

But in a lengthy dissent, Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote that people with felony convictions might not vote because they feared being eventually found ineligible and prosecuted.

“The fact that Florida had restored voting rights to 0 felons as of the time of trial indicates that this scheme does not ‘rationally’ further the goal of re-enfranchising felons,” he wrote. “Instead, it shows that Florida’s organs of government are doing their best to slowly but surely suffocate Amendment 4.

“I doubt that today’s decision – which blesses Florida’s neutering of Amendment 4 – will be viewed as kindly by history,” he added.


Sam Levine in New York

The GuardianTramp

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