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Court Blocks Restrictions on Ex-Felons Voting in Florida (1)

Feb. 19, 2020, 3:59 PMUpdated: Feb. 19, 2020, 4:59 PM

Florida can’t require convicted felons to pay all their legal financial obligations to the state before reclaiming their right to vote if they show they are indigent, the Eleventh Circuit said Wednesday.

The legal financial obligations law violates the equal protection clause because it unconstitutionally denies the right to vote to a class of felons based only on their wealth, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit said. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that access to the ballot box isn’t related to a person’s wealth, it said.

Florida voters in 2018 adopted a state constitutional amendment that returned the right to vote to all convicted felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole and probation.” Those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense are ineligible.

The state Legislature then enacted a law implementing the amendment and withholding voting rights until ex-felons repaid all fines, fees, and restitution imposed as part of a felony sentence. The Florida Supreme Court upheld that interpretation.

Critics argued that Florida had created a “poll tax” and was discriminating on the basis of wealth in a state poised to play a crucial role in the 2020 presidential election.

But a federal district court issued a preliminary injunction, requiring the state to allow 17 named plaintiffs to vote if they were able to show they are genuinely unable to pay the fines. A trial is scheduled in April.

The state’s interests in overseeing elections also doesn’t outweigh the plaintiffs’ interests in exercising the core democratic right to vote, the per curiam opinion said.

Voting rights advocates who sued on behalf of 17 ex-felons celebrated the opinion.

“Today’s decision protects against Florida’s efforts to crassly undermine the historic citizen-led voter initiative that restored voting eligibility to more than 1.4 million individuals,” Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said in an emailed statement. “By affirming a preliminary finding that predicated the ability to vote based on wealth is unconstitutional — particularly when Black people with felony convictions disproportionately lack access to wealth — we are able to continue our fight to ensure that ultimately all Floridians whose voting rights were rightfully restored through Amendment 4 can exercise that right.”

Attorneys for the state have argued that ex-felons can request waivers or have their fines converted to community service.

“We disagree and will appeal en banc,” Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), said in a post to her Twitter account. DeSantis’ press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Judges R. Lanier Anderson III, Stanley Marcus, and Barbara J. Rothstein, sitting by designation, were on the panel.

Campaign Legal Center was among the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. Cooper & Kirk PLLC and the Florida Attorney General’s Office represented the state.

The case is Jones v. Governor of Florida, 11th Cir., No. 19-14551, 2/19/20.

(Updates with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Bernie Pazanowski in Washington at bpazanowski@bloomberglaw.com; Jennifer Kay in Miami at jkay@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Carmen Castro-Pagan at ccastro-pagan@bloomberglaw.com