TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Supreme Court justices appeared convinced Wednesday that a constitutional amendment, overwhelmingly approved during the November 2018 election, requires payment of restitution, fees and other legal costs for felons to have their voting rights restored.
The constitutional amendment grants 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."
But the meaning of "all terms of their sentence" became a contentious sticking point for lawmakers this spring as they crafted a law to carry out the amendment. The Republican-dominated Legislature finally settled on a measure requiring felons to pay "legal financial obligations," such as restitution, fines and fees, to be eligible to have voting rights restored.
Voting rights advocates and civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit shortly after Gov Ron DeSantis signed the measure (SB 7066) into law.
Critics of the law maintain that requiring felons -- whom they dub "returning citizens" -- to pay fees and costs in exchange for voting rights contradicts what more than 64 percent of Floridians thought they were approving last fall.
In the midst of the federal lawsuit, DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on whether the law adheres to the wording of the amendment, an issue not addressed in the federal complaint.
During arguments Wednesday, Supreme Court justices repeatedly relied on amendment proponents' own words -- in newspaper opinion pieces and in a missive to Secretary of State Laurel Lee in December -- that said returning citizens' eligibility rests on whether they have fulfilled their time behind bars or on probation in addition to paying restitution, fines and fees ordered by judges.
Justice Barbara Lagoa accused proponents of the measure of now taking "an opposite view" that the financial obligations were not required to be fulfilled.
"…There were different op-ed pieces, there were voter guides, that specifically discussed what was meant by all terms of sentence, including probation, fines, restitution, parole. I mean, I have reams here of op-ed pieces and editorials from different papers all over the state of Florida that made it clear that this included restitution and fines," she asked American Civil Liberties Union of Florida lawyer Anton Marino.
Marino said the court should adhere to its practice of examining the ballot title and summary, rather than opinion pieces or other documents.
"That's the only thing that the court can identify as all voters having seen when they cast their ballots," Marino said.
A recent analysis found that more than 80 percent of felons who have completed their time behind bars have some sort of outstanding financial obligations associated with their crimes.
"It cannot be that more than four out of five returning citizens is serving a life sentence. Adopting the governor's interpretation leads to an absurd result that contravenes the chief purpose of the amendment," Marino said.
But DeSantis lawyer Joe Jacquot argued that the amendment, which appeared on the ballot last November as Amendment 4, incorporates everything a judge orders when a defendant is sentenced.
"All terms means all of the conditions that are in the sentencing order. Amendment 4 restores voting rights only upon completion of those terms of a sentence," Jacquot said.
Justice Carlos Muñiz suggested that returning citizens who are unable to pay the financial obligations required by the law still have the ability to seek have their rights restored by the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, comprised of the governor and the state Cabinet.
The state has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases awaiting action for restoration of civil rights, including the right to vote, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. The backlog and the years-long waiting period for felons to apply to have their rights restored -- at least five years -- prompted the ballot initiative.
Under the new law, Jacquot said it was "incumbent upon the secretary of state" to evaluate whether felons meet the criteria to register to vote.
Mo Jazil, a lawyer representing the secretary of state, said the Supreme Court needed to "provide some measure of finality and certainty as we head into a presidential election" about the amendment. Jazil, too, pointed to proponents' prior positions about the financial obligations requirement.
"The meaning should be fixed. The meaning should not change. The words didn't change. The meaning shouldn't change," Jazil told the court.
In a ruling in the federal case last month, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle decided the state must find a way to allow people who cannot afford to pay their financial obligations to register to vote and cast their ballots. Hinkle's temporary injunction, however, only applied to the named plaintiffs in the case, which is set for trial in April.
The federal judge also advised the Florida Legislature to resolve the issue. Lawmakers will meet for the 2020 legislative session in January.
Speaking to reporters after Wednesday's hearing, ACLU of Florida lawyer Daniel Tilley said the Florida Supreme Court case "will not impact in the slightest, our ongoing federal litigation that demonstrates that it is unconstitutional to deny someone the right to vote based on the ability to pay."
"What voters understood, in all the media pieces I saw, was that 1.4 million people were going to have their rights to vote restored. Not 20 percent of 1.4 million, but actually 1.4 million," Tilley said.
News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.