Federal appeals court upholds Florida law requiring felons to pay debts before voting
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Federal appeals court upholds Florida law requiring felons to pay debts before voting

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on Monday upheld a 2019 Florida law that prevents felons from voting until they pay their legal financial obligations of fines, fees, and restitution. The court held that the voting requirement did not unconstitutionally discriminate against low-income women of color.

Several plaintiffs challenged the requirement asserting that as “applied to low-income women of color” who face financial instability, it “violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.” The plaintiffs further argued that low-income women of color “face unemployment, low wages, and difficulty paying off their financial debts at much higher rates than their male and white female counterparts.”

Circuit Judge Jill Pryor wrote the court opinion and began by noting that before the Florida legislature passed the 2019 voting law, a super majority of Florida voters amended their state constitution to permit most people with felony convictions to vote after completing “all terms of sentence.” To interpret “all terms of sentence,” Pryor pointed to a Florida Supreme Court advisory opinion to Governor Ron DeSantis stating that this phrase as used in the amendment “has an ordinary meaning that the voters would have understood to refer not only to durational periods but also to all legal financial obligations.”

In affirming the lower court’s decision, the circuit court observed that under Massachusetts v. Feeney, the plaintiffs had to show “intentional or purposeful discrimination” in their Equal Protection Clause Claim. As for the plaintiffs’ Nineteenth Amendment claim, the circuit court conceded that the US Supreme Court had never applied that requirement to Nineteenth Amendment claims.

Still, the court stated that “as an inferior court” it could not apply differing rules for the relevant amendments. The circuit court agreed with the trial court’s finding that the plaintiffs failed to “show that gender was a motivating factor in the adoption of the pay-to-vote system.” Hence, the circuit court deemed the legal financial obligation requirements to be constitutionally valid.