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BEDFORD, NH - FEBRUARY 11: A voter walk to the voting booth at Bedford High School during the New Hampshire primary on February 11, 2020 in Bedford, New Hampshire. (Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

Florida can bar ex-felons from voting if they owe court payments, appeals court rules

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, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

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

The law, Chief Judge William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion, 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.”

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The ruling, issued less than two months before the presidential election, marks another chapter in the extensive court battle over the law in a state President Donald won in 2016 by less than 113,000 votes over Hillary Clinton, or 1.2% of the vote.

Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court said Florida can enforce the law while the legal case over its constitutionality plays out, meaning the rule would likely be in place for the November elections.

Friday’s ruling overturns a decision from US District Court Robert Hinkle, who had said the Florida law, in respect to those people who are unable to pay, violates the Constitution. Hinkle called the state’s procedure an “unconstitutional pay-to-vote system.”

Convicted felons in Florida had their voting rights restored with a constitutional amendment that passed in November 2018. Amendment 4, which allowed convicted felons who complete “all terms of sentence” the right to vote, passed with nearly 65% of the vote, exceeding the 60% threshold required.

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After Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019, the GOP-led Florida Legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, a bill that clarified “all terms of sentence” to include legal financial obligations such as fines, fees and restitution.

Multiple groups, including the Campaign Legal Center and American Civil Liberties Union, filed a flurry of legal challenges arguing the new law was unconstitutional and amounted to a “poll tax.”

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.”

Author: Dan Berman and Caroline Kelly, CNN
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