Florida governor invokes rarely used power asking for justices' opinion

Gov. Ron DeSantis asks justices to weigh in on felons' rights

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A week after asking a federal judge to toss out a lawsuit on the issue, Gov. Ron DeSantis is seeking guidance from the Florida Supreme Court about a controversial state law requiring people convicted of felonies to repay financial obligations before they can regain the right to vote.

With a federal lawsuit already filed, some believe the governor’s letter asking for an opinion is an attempt to get a state court, the Florida Supreme Court, to make a decision before federal court rules.

“It is ultimately my responsibility, through the Department of State, to ‘protect the integrity of the electoral process’ by maintaining accurate and current voter registration records, including ensuring only eligible voters remain on the statewide voter registration system,” DeSantis, a Harvard-educated lawyer, wrote in a four-page letter to the Supreme Court on Friday.

But some Democrats blasted DeSantis for turning to the Supreme Court, even as the state law is the focus of a federal lawsuit. As a candidate last year, the Republican governor did not support the constitutional amendment to restore felons’ rights.

“My take is that it’s a continuation of a party who is hell-bent on trying to deprive citizens of the right that the people of the state of Florida indicated they should have,” state Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and former chairman of the Legislature’s black caucus, told The News Service of Florida on Friday.

The law, approved during the legislative session that ended in May, was intended to carry out a constitutional amendment that granted restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

The interpretation of “all terms of their sentence” spawned some of the session’s most-intense partisan divides as lawmakers struggled to reach consensus about what it meant. The law, signed by DeSantis in late June, requires “financial obligations” ordered by courts as part of sentencing -- including fines, fees and restitution -- to be paid in full for voting rights to be restored.

The law also allows judges to modify financial obligations other than restitution that were part of sentences. And the law allows judges to convert financial obligations to community service hours. Under that scenario, financial obligations are considered paid in full once community service is complete.