Appeals court: Florida can bar ex-felons from voting until they pay up

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that Florida can bar ex-felons from voting if they owe court fines or fees associated with their convictions, even if they are unable to pay.

The 6-4 ruling by the full 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling blocking the law.

Chief Judge William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion that the state law doesn’t constitute a poll tax. Instead, “it promotes full rehabilitation of returning citizens and ensures full satisfaction of the punishment imposed for the crimes by which felons forfeited the right to vote.”

“That criminal sentences often include financial obligations does not make this requirement a ‘capricious or irrelevant factor,’” Pryor wrote. “Monetary provisions of a sentence are no less a part of the penalty that society imposes for a crime than terms of imprisonment. Indeed, some felons face substantial monetary penalties but little or no prison time.”

Paul Smith, vice president at the Campaign Legal Center, called Friday’s decision “deeply disappointing.”

“While the full rights restoration envisioned by Amendment 4 has become less likely to be realized this fall, we will continue this fight for all Florida voters, so the full benefits of Amendment 4 will someday be realized,” Smith said in a statement, adding that “nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”

Convicted felons in Florida had their voting rights restored when 65% of voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018. Desmond Meade led the charge for the voting restoration amendment two years ago.

Meade says Amendment 4 represented the single largest expansion of voting rights in the United States in half a century and brought an end to 150 years of a Jim Crow-era law in Florida.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think that there’s any state that should be forcing an American citizen to choose between putting food on their kid’s plate or voting,” Meade said.

Meade believes the ruling will affect this year’s election, but points out that there are organizations raising money to pay off those debts for former felons.

Then, they would be eligible to register to vote.

Friday’s ruling was the latest high-stakes challenges to a 2019 Florida law requiring felons to pay court-ordered “legal financial obligations” -- fees, fines, costs and restitution -- associated with their convictions to be eligible to vote. The law, approved by Republican legislators and signed by DeSantis last year, was aimed at implementing a 2018 constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.”

Plaintiffs maintain that linking voting rights and finances amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax,” while the Republican governor contends that the Florida law carries out the language of the constitutional amendment and the intent of its supporters.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in May cemented a previous ruling in which he found that the state cannot deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable to pay” their court-ordered debts. DeSantis appealed the decision.

In an unusual move, the 11th Circuit agreed to DeSantis’ request for an “en banc,” or full court, initial review of the appeal. Three-judge panels almost always conduct initial reviews. The court also put Hinkle’s decision on hold and scheduled oral arguments in the case for Aug. 18, the same day as Florida’s primary elections.

Trump has appointed half of the conservative-leaning court’s judges. In addition to Luck, Lagoa and Brasher, the president also tapped Judges Kevin Newsom, Elizabeth Branch and Britt Grant.

President George W. Bush appointed Pryor, and former President Bill Clinton appointed Judge Charles Wilson. Former President Barack Obama appointed Judges Beverly Martin, Adalberto Jordan, Jill Pryor and Rosenbaum.

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