Fight over felon voting rights heads back to federal court

Elbert P. Tuttle Courthouse in Atlanta (Photo courtesy: United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The fight to allow felons who are too poor to pay their court-ordered fines and fees continued Thursday in an Atlanta appellate court.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which advocates for the disadvantaged, is pushing a novel argument that Florida’s financial requirements disproportionately impact women of color and therefore violate the 19th Amendment.

Last September, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Florida’s requirement that felons must pay all fines, fees and restitution before their voting rights are restored. The court ruled the financial obligations were a punishment for a crime, not a tax.

“We brought additional claims that go beyond just their wealth,” said Nancy Abudu, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Abudu is representing Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton, two Jacksonville women who court documents say owe more than $24,000 combined in fees and restitution.

“It’s unrealistic in our clients’ situation,” Abudu said of her clients’ ability to pay those court-ordered fees.

Attorneys are now making the case because women, particularly women of color, are less likely to be able to afford to pay, the Florida law violates the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote..

“You have one-fourth of Black women who are living below the poverty line. You have 43 percent of Black women who have a criminal conviction who are unemployed,” Abudu said.

The argument provides a rare opportunity for the courts to weigh in on the scope of the 19th Amendment, which has only gone before the U.S. Supreme Court on two previous occasions.

Earlier in the case though, a federal judge rejected the 19th Amendment claims made by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the ruling, the judge argued the law has a greater impact on men, who are incarcerated at much higher rates.

But Abudu said that argument misses the point.

“He didn’t take into account the disproportionate number, statistically, of women who are in the criminal justice system and therefore face harder burdens,” Abudu said.

The plaintiffs hope the appellate court will strike down Florida’s law based on Thursday’s hearing, or that it will at least send the case back to the district court to reconsider the 19th Amendment arguments.

SPLC attorneys pointed out the For the People Act, if passed by Congress, could make the whole case moot because it would require that felons’ voting rights be restored upon their release from prison.