Affirming a lower court decision in Jones v. DeSantis, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit blocked Florida from enforcing a newly implemented law that would interfere with the restoration of voting rights recently passed under Amendment 4.
A unanimous panel of judges found that mandating fulfillment of legal financial obligations as a condition of having voting rights restored violated basic principles of equal protection. Simply put, the inability to pay alone was insufficient to justify the continued disenfranchisement of those who would be otherwise eligible for reinstatement.
In a 78-page decision, the panel found that “felons who are unable to pay (and who have no reasoned prospect of being able to pay) will remain barred from voting, repeatedly and indefinitely, while for those who can pay, the punishment will immediately come to an end.” Although the state of Florida argued that those who were unable to pay could pursue alternative avenues for reinstatement of rights, the court found those methods were not “practically available” for most formerly incarcerated people. The discretionary nature of these mechanisms do not provide a “suitable alternative” to the grant of rights restoration provided by Amendment 4, as originally passed.
“But the decision goes further in announcing a landmark principle that requiring payment of legal financial obligations as a condition of voting is unconstitutional as applied to those who are genuinely unable to pay,” explained a statement from Campaign Legal Center (CLC), which represents three of the plaintiffs.
“We are pleased that the court’s decision today affirms our position that lack of wealth cannot be a barrier to one’s ability to vote,” said Paul Smith, CLC Vice President in the statement.
Desmond Meade, executive director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), released a statement saying the organization was “cautiously optimistic” about the 11th Circuit’s ruling, but stressed that the legal battle was far from over since the injunction only applies to the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
FRRC “will continue to place people over politics and create a more inclusive democracy,” said Meade. He further challenged Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida’s Clemency Board “to take bold and courageous actions around clemency reform without having to wait for any court ruling or legislative action.”
In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 which would restore voting rights to those who had been convicted of felonies, so long as they met certain requirements. Last spring, the Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 7066 which required people formerly incarcerated for felonies to resolve legal financial obligations before being reinstated. This posed an additional burden on top of the requirements set forth in Amendment 4.
Hearing the case in October 2019, Judge Robert Hinkle ordered a preliminary injunction on behalf of the 17 plaintiffs who originally brought the lawsuit. The Court of Appeals decision upholds the preliminary injunction barring Florida from discriminating on the basis of wealth. Trial will begin on April 6 in the federal district court located in Tallahassee.