An appeals court on Friday reversed a district court’s decision and upheld a 2019 Florida law requiring that people with past felony convictions pay back all court fines, fees and restitution before regaining their right to vote. Critics have called the law a “poll tax” that discriminates on the basis of race and wealth.
The decision, fewer than two months before Election Day, could prevent hundreds of thousands of people from voting.
“Because the felons failed to prove a violation of the Constitution, we reverse the judgment of the district court and vacate the challenged portions of its injunction,” wrote William H. Pryor Jr., chief judge of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The opinion showed the power of Republicans’ surge of judicial confirmations over the past four years: Aside from Chief Judge Pryor, who was appointed to the Eleventh Circuit by President George W. Bush, all five of the Eleventh Circuit judges siding with the state of Florida were Trump nominees.
Florida has struggled to develop a comprehensive accounting of what, if any, fees each ex-felon needs to pay off. With weeks to go before Nov. 3, the bureaucratic hurdle could prove too much for many voters.
“The big problem with this ruling is Florida doesn’t know how much, if any, a former felon owes,” Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, observed. “A person could with good intent register to vote thinking that they’ve paid all their restitution, only to find afterwards that the state locates a stray record somewhere.”
Indeed, Pryor’s opinion acknowledged that “the felons complain that it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the facts that determine eligibility to vote.” But, he wrote, “The Due Process Clause does not require States to provide individual process to help citizens learn the facts necessary to comply with laws of general application.”
In a blistering dissent joined by three of his Eleventh Circuit colleagues, Judge Adalberto Jordan focused on the state of Florida’s difficulty in actually telling former felons how much they would have to pay, if anything, to regain their voting rights.
“Florida cannot tell felons—the great majority of whom are indigent—how much they owe, has not completed screening a single felon registrant for unpaid [legal financial obligations], has processed 0 out of 85,000 pending registrations of felons (that’s not a misprint—it really is 0), and has come up with conflicting (and uncodified) methods for determining how LFO payments by felons should be credited,” he said.
The state hasn’t been able to tell even the named plaintiffs in the case before the Eleventh Circuit how much they owe, Jordan noted.
“So felons who want to satisfy the LFO requirement are unable to do so, and will be prevented from voting in the 2020 elections and far beyond,” he wrote. “Had Florida wanted to create a system to obstruct, impede, and impair the ability of felons to vote under Amendment 4, it could not have come up with a better one.”
The modern battle over former felons’ voting rights in Florida began in 2018, when voters passed a ballot initiative (known as Amendment 4) in the state with 65% support declaring that “any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” The initiative excluded felonies for murder or felony sexual offenses.
The state’s Republican-dominated legislature subsequently passed a new law defining felons’ sentences to include all fines, fees and restitution associated with them. A district judge knocked down that law in May, calling the fees “taxes in substance though not in name.” But the Eleventh Circuit put that ruling on hold in July, a move later backed by the Supreme Court.
An expert witness for challengers of the law testified this past Spring that nearly four fifths of the 1.4 million former felons who could regain their right to vote under the amendment owed $500 or more in court fees.
In her own dissent, Eleventh Circuit Judge Jill Pryor pointed to the possibility — acknowledged by the state — that every single former felon in Florida may face unconquerable obstacles to regaining their right to vote.
“If this is not a nullification of the will of the electorate, I don’t know what would be,” she wrote.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a key group in the fight to re-enfranchise former felons, has in recent months focused its efforts on fundraising to pay the fines and fees of potential voters. After Friday’s opinion was published, the group promoted a program to match former felons with pro-bono attorneys and “scholarship-type” awards to repay fines and fees. Celebrities including Michael Jordan, John Legend and LeBron James have pledged financial help to Floridians encumbered by the law.
Read the Eleventh Circuit opinion below:
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