In a 6-4 decision on Friday, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that felons in the state of Florida cannot have their voting rights restored until they pay all restitution, fines and fees.
Chief Judge William Pryor, writing for the majority, first noted the “historic amendment” that Florida voters passed in 2018, Amendment 4. The amendment altered Article VI, section 4 of the state constitution to restore felons’ voting rights “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” He wrote that, in passing the amendment to restore voting rights, the people of Florida “imposed only one condition . . . felons must complete all the terms of their criminal sentences, including imprisonment, probation, and payment of any fines, fees, costs, and restitution.”
However, the amendment itself mentions only parole and probation. It was the Florida legislature that passed SB 7066 in 2019, which conditioned the restoration of voting rights upon completing not just incarceration, parole, or probation, but also upon the full payment of any restitution, fines or fees.
The law was challenged by several felons who argued that the requirement to pay was a violation of their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a violation of the 24th Amendment which outlaws poll taxes, and a violation of their procedural due process rights because the system makes it difficult for a felon to determine if they are even eligible to vote.
Previously, the district court had issued a permanent injunction enabling felons who were unable to pay for any reason the ability to register to vote. The circuit court reversed that injunction, holding that the felons failed to prove any constitutional violations, and that “[s]tates are constitutionally entitled to set legitimate voter qualifications through laws of general application and to require voters to comply with those laws through their own efforts.”
The dissent pointed to evidence from the trial court that Florida’s system for informing felons how much they owe is inadequate. They noted that the system could not even “tell the 17 named plaintiffs in this case what their outstanding LFOs [legal financial obligations] are.” The dissent concluded that “[h]ad 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.”
Leah C. Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the plaintiffs in the case, called the ruling “outrageous” and said, “Undoubtedly, we will keep fighting to realize the promise of Amendment 4.”