Felons' rights lawsuit timing debated as elections loom
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Lawyers representing opposite sides in a federal lawsuit about felons’ voting rights can’t agree on how quickly a judge should decide the issue, potentially affecting whether hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to participate in next year’s presidential primary elections.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who want the lawsuit dismissed, are asking U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to hold a trial in the case in November. But plaintiffs say they need more time to gather evidence in their challenge to a state law requiring people convicted of felonies to pay legal financial obligations before they can register to vote.
The law, passed during this spring’s legislative session, is aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment that automatically restores voting rights to felons who have completed the terms of their sentences.
More than 71 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment in November, and felons affected by the measure began registering to vote as soon as the amendment went into effect in early January.
The lawsuit was filed after the Republican-dominated Legislature tucked into a sweeping election law a provision requiring felons to pay all court-ordered “legal financial obligations” --- including fines, fees and restitution --- before voting rights can be restored. The law, signed by DeSantis, went into effect on July 1.
Voting-rights groups and civil-rights advocates allege the linkage between finances and voting rights amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax,” a vestige of Jim Crow-era policies aimed at preventing blacks from voting.
The state, however, maintains the state law carries out the language of the amendment and argues that the statute is more permissive than what is now part of the state Constitution.
On Monday, lawyers on both sides in the case filed a joint brief about how it should proceed.
Plaintiffs proposed having a trial in April, more than a month after Florida’s presidential primary elections. That also would be about two months after the voter-registration deadline for the presidential primaries.
“Unfortunately, it is not possible to allow for full development of a trial record, appeal, and unhurried implementation prior to the presidential preference election book closing on Feb. 18,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote.
The plaintiffs asked the court to schedule a hearing this October on their request for a preliminary injunction to block the law from going into effect.
An April trial would give plenty of time for Hinkle to rule on the merits of the lawsuit, for appeals to take place and “for unhurried implementation prior to the November 2020 presidential and general elections,” the plaintiffs argued.
But the state’s lawyers argued that Hinkle doesn’t need to wait that long.
“State defendants assert that this case will be ready for trial in November,” the lawyers wrote, adding “the final trial on the merits should be held in conjunction with any preliminary injunction hearing.”
Implementation of the amendment granting felons’ voting rights was one of the most-acrimonious topics during the legislative session that ended in May, and the federal court battle is shaping up to be equally, if not more, contentious.
DeSantis’ lawyers have asked Hinkle to dismiss the case, arguing that it belongs in state, and not federal, court.
On Friday, the governor asked the Florida Supreme Court for guidance on “whether ‘completion of all terms of sentence’ … includes the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations --- namely fees, fines and restitution ordered by the court as part of a felony sentence that would otherwise render a convicted felon ineligible to vote.”
Estimates about the number of Floridians who could be impacted by the amendment vary in a state where razor-thin margins in major elections are common. But backers of the measure estimate that it affects more than 1 million potential voters who lost their voting rights after being convicted of felonies.
The amendment 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.
On Monday, state Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Riviera Beach, filed a measure that would remove the requirement that fines and fees be repaid as a prerequisite for voting rights. The proposal (HB 6007), filed for the 2020 legislative session, would keep the requirement that restitution be paid.
“Unfortunately, the demographic breakdown of those who lose their voting rights shows obvious racial disparities and income inequality,” Jacquet, who is black, said in a prepared statement announcing the filing of the legislation. “Intentional or otherwise, the consequence of this provision is an indirect measure used to exclude people of a particular race or socioeconomic status, thereby disenfranchising people.”
News Service of Florida