TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida officials have lost their latest bid to enforce a state law denying the right to vote for felons who have not paid all court fines and fees.
Tuesday's decision by the entire bench of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was the latest setback for Gov. Ron DeSantis and fellow Republicans who have tried to limit the reach of Amendment 4, a ballot measure approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2018 that restores the vote to felons who have served their sentences.
After voters approved Amendment 4, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill signed by the governor stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other financial obligations before their sentences will be considered fully served.
In October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction against some parts of that new law, and in February, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit let the injunction stand. The full court's decision upheld both of those rulings on Tuesday.
"The 11th circuit has yet again rejected the state's attempts to overturn a ruling that made clear that the state is violating the U.S. Constitution by denying the right to vote to people because of their inability to pay fines and fees," said Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. The center was among several organizations who represented felons in a lawsuit.
A spokesman for DeSantis was not immediately available to comment on Tuesday's ruling.
The state could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that might be impractical considering that a full trial is scheduled to begin in late April before Hinkle.
Hinkle has said Florida has the right to deny felons access to the ballot box if they have the means to repay outstanding financial obligations, but he said the state cannot deny the vote to felons too poor to fully settle up. He likened the requirement to a poll tax.
While the ruling only applies to the plaintiffs, the case has broad ramifications for the 1.6 million Florida felons who have completed their prison sentences and could regain their voting privileges under Amendment 4. According to a study by a University of Florida political scientist, about 80% of released felons still have legal financial obligations.
In issuing his ruling last fall, Hinkle put pressure on state elections officials to bring clarity to the voter registration process.
In denying the governor's latest appeal, the court noted that no judge in regular active service on the Atlanta-based court requested a rehearing.
Two of the appellate court’s newest members — Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa — were most recently members of the Florida Supreme Court. Both were appointed to the state’s high court by DeSantis shortly after taking office last year.