TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration want a federal judge to put on hold a challenge to a state law carrying out a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.
The Republican governor and Secretary of State Laurel Lee on Tuesday asked U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to put the federal lawsuit on hold until the Florida Supreme Court rules in a related case.
Voting rights advocates and civil rights groups filed the federal challenge shortly after DeSantis signed into law a measure (SB 7066) that requires felons to pay "legal financial obligations," such as restitution, fines and fees, to be eligible to have their voting rights restored. The plaintiffs in the case allege the state law imposes an unconstitutional "poll tax" and violates a number of other constitutional rights.
Proponents of the law, including DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, have argued that it adheres to the wording of the amendment, which granted voting-rights restoration to felons "who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation," excluding people "convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense." The terms of sentence include financial obligations ordered by courts, the defendants maintain.
DeSantis' attorneys asked Hinkle last month to dismiss the federal lawsuit. A short time later, they sought guidance from the Florida Supreme Court about whether the state law correctly carries out the constitutional amendment, which appeared on the November ballot as Amendment 4 and was approved by nearly 65 percent of Florida voters.
The state on Tuesday asked Hinkle to put the federal case on hold until the Supreme Court weighs in on the matter, "as the opinion would be instructive on a question of state law interpretation that has practical implications on the challenges raised in these actions."
Hinkle should issue a stay in the federal lawsuit "because this court will have the benefit of the Florida Supreme Court's view of the meaning of the phrase ‘completion of all terms of sentence' under Florida's Constitution," lawyers representing DeSantis and Lee wrote in the seven-page motion.
The state's lawyers said the Florida Supreme Court's opinion "could resolve (or at least narrow the issues) by determining that the plain language ‘all terms of sentence' … includes legal fines, fees, restitution, and other financial obligations."
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit have focused solely on whether the state law requiring financial obligations to be paid runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution, and not on whether the statute properly implements Amendment 4.
But Hinkle last month asked both sides in the case to address whether the amendment requires payment of financial obligations, and what it would mean if it does.
In response, the plaintiffs argued the amendment does not require payment of "legal financial obligations," but even if it does, that shouldn't block automatic restoration of voting rights established in the constitutional amendment from taking effect.
Waiting for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the question posed by Hinkle, should clear up some confusion in the case, the state's lawyers argued Tuesday.
"This court need not pose hypothetical questions as to what Florida's Constitution means regarding satisfaction of legal financial obligations because the Florida Supreme Court's advisory opinion will provide clarity and finality on that issue -- an issue solely in their jurisdiction," the state's lawyers wrote.
Justices are slated to hear arguments in the Amendment 4 case on Nov. 6.
Waiting for the Supreme Court will not "unduly delay" the federal court proceedings, the state argued, asking Hinkle to impose a stay until 10 days after the state court issues its advisory opinion.
During an Aug. 15 hearing, Hinkle asked both sides whether the constitutional amendment "also provides that a plaintiff cannot vote unless the plaintiff satisfies all the financial obligations, then the question becomes, what happens if that's unconstitutional?"
Responding to the judge's request, lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote "there is no textual or legal basis for interpreting Amendment 4 to require payment of LFOs (legal financial obligations) as a condition precedent to automatic rights restoration."
The plaintiffs also argued against waiting for the Florida Supreme Court -- which has a conservative majority, following the appointment of three justices by DeSantis early this year -- to weigh in on the issue.
Delaying a decision until the state court rules on the matter "would take considerable time and threaten to unlawfully disenfranchise plaintiffs in the upcoming presidential primary election," the plaintiffs wrote, noting that the federal court "faces a tight schedule" to decide on the case. The presidential primary is scheduled for March 17.
Even if the Florida court says that Amendment 4 requires payment of financial obligations, Hinkle can block that requirement from going into effect "without disturbing the automatic restoration of voting rights that over 64 percent of Florida voters supported in November 2018," the plaintiffs' lawyers argued.
If the amendment requires payment of financial obligations, that provision "can easily be severed" from the remainder of the amendment, the lawyers wrote.
"Moreover, even if the court were to find otherwise, the result would not be to return to the pre-Amendment 4 scheme. The clearest intent of voters was to limit permanent disenfranchisement to only those convicted of felony murder or felony sexual offense," they argued.