Florida Supreme Court rules some released felons must pay off fines before voting
Posted January 16, 2020 9:33 p.m. EST
CNN — The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday sided with the state's GOP governor by ruling that certain released felons must pay all fines and fees associated with their convictions before their right to vote is restored.
The court's advisory opinion affirmed the language of a 2019 law signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that requires some released felons to pay back outstanding financial obligations before their voting rights could be restored. DeSantis signed the law in response to the passage of Amendment 4, a 2018 ballot measure that gave voting rights to former felons in the state.
"The Governor asks whether the phrase 'all terms of sentence' encompasses legal financial obligations (LFOs)—fines, restitution, costs, and - 2 - fees—ordered by the sentencing court," the opinion reads. "We answer in the affirmative, concluding that 'all terms of sentence' encompasses not just durational periods but also all LFOs imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt."
DeSantis praised the ruling in a tweet Thursday, stating that "voting is a privilege that should not be taken lightly, and I am obligated to faithfully implement Amendment 4 as it is defined."
The court's opinion marks a notable setback for critics of the law who have argued having to pay fines, fees or restitution amounts to a poll tax.
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement Thursday she was "terribly disappointed" by the ruling, insisting the state needs to be "working on a responsible and accessible path forward on restoring rights, not making it harder."
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed suit in Florida on behalf of 10 people who lost their right to vote through felony convictions. The lawsuit says the new law, which sets conditions on an amendment passed by voters last year, will have a disenfranchising effect and creates two classes of citizens: those who have the money and those who don't.
Orion Danjuma, an ACLU staff attorney, said Thursday the court's advisory opinion has no impact on the federal lawsuit.
"To reiterate, the federal issue in this case is this: Under the Constitution a person's right to vote cannot be contingent on their wealth," he said, adding that, "The federal case will go forward to vindicate the rights of hundreds of thousands of Floridians who may not be denied access to the ballot box due to their financial resources."
The federal case is pending before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and oral argument is scheduled for January 28 in Atlanta, Danjuma said.
In 2018, Amendment 4 passed with nearly 65% of the vote, exceeding the 60% threshold required to become a law and restoring voting rights to about 1.4 million Floridians.
The addition of so many new voters could have an impact in a state whose elections are often decided by slim margins. An analysis conducted by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald found Democratic and black voters were far more likely to have lost their voting rights because of felony convictions.
The fees and fines that felons are ordered to pay are wide-ranging but significantly high for an individual leaving prison, especially if they're unemployed. They can range from a couple hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, Lisa Foster, the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a group that aims to eliminate fees in the US justice system, has told CNN.
In Florida, all the court charges that are unpaid after 90 days are referred to private debt collectors, who are allowed to add up to a 40% surcharge on the unpaid court debt, according to Brennan Center for Justice, a division of New York University School of Law that studies democracy and justice issues and helped draft Amendment 4.