Appeals court upholds law requiring felons pay fines, others costs before being allowed to vote

Delivering a victory to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a divided federal appeals court on Friday upheld the constitutionality of a Florida law requiring felons to complete all financial terms of their sentences --- including paying fines, fees, costs and restitution --- to be eligible to vote.

The 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals, in a 6-4 ruling, struck a major blow to voting-rights groups that challenged the law, approved by Republican legislators and signed by DeSantis last year. The law was aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole and probation.”

Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told reporters Friday evening that the Atlanta-based appeals court’s ruling was “a severe blow to democracy and also to the hundreds of thousands of returning citizens that want nothing more than to feel like they’re part of this country.”

The decision reversed a May ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who said the state could not deny voting rights to felons who genuinely could not afford to pay court-ordered debts. Hinkle’s ruling would have allowed hundreds of thousands of felons to register and vote in this year’s presidential election without paying outstanding legal financial obligations.

DeSantis appealed the ruling, and the 11th Circuit made the unusual move of granting his request for an “en banc,” or full court, initial hearing.

Friday’s 60-page majority opinion, authored by Chief Judge William Pryor, found fault with the type of legal analysis used in February by a three-judge panel of the appeals court. That panel upheld a preliminary injunction Hinkle issued in October, finding that requiring felons to pay financial obligations to vote amounted to wealth-based discrimination.

“That decision was wrong,” Pryor wrote in Friday’s majority opinion joined by Judges Kevin Newsom, Elizabeth Branch, Britt Grant, Robert Luck, and Barbara Lagoa.

Luck and Lagoa were appointed by DeSantis to the Florida Supreme Court last year but left the state court after President Donald Trump tapped them for the 11th Circuit.

Florida “withholds the franchise from any felon, regardless of wealth, who has failed to complete any term of his criminal sentence, financial or otherwise,” Pryor emphasized.

“It does not single out the failure to complete financial terms for special treatment,” Pryor added.

The majority also disputed arguments by plaintiffs that linking voting rights and finances amount to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

Amendment 4 and the 2019 law are “markedly different” from poll taxes, Pryor wrote.

“They do not make affluence or the payment of a fee an ‘electoral standard.’ They instead impose a different electoral standard: to regain the right to vote, felons, rich and poor, must complete all terms of their criminal sentences,” he said.

Unlike a poll tax, the requirement to fulfill all terms of a sentence is “highly relevant to voter qualifications,” the chief judge said.

“It promotes full rehabilitation of returning citizens and ensures full satisfaction of the punishment imposed for the crimes by which felons forfeited the right to vote,” he wrote. “Monetary provisions of a sentence are no less a part of the penalty that society imposes for a crime than terms of imprisonment. Indeed, some felons face substantial monetary penalties but little or no prison time.”

But in a scalding 93-page dissent, Judge Adalberto Jordan lambasted the state for its inability to properly screen felons’ voter applications. Florida officials have been unable to tell the 17 named plaintiffs in the case the amounts of their outstanding legal financial obligations, or LFOs, 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. 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,” Jordan wrote in a dissent joined by Judges Beverly Martin, Jill Pryor, and Charles Wilson. Jill Pryor and Martin also wrote separate dissents echoing the umbrage in Jordan’s opinion.

The vast majority of Floridians convicted of felonies are indigent, “the record is replete” with examples of situations where sentencing documents do not clearly identify how much felons owe, and Florida’s records “contain substantial inconsistencies,” Jordan wrote, recounting evidence revealed during a trial.

But in an 18-page opinion concurring with the majority, Lagoa gave a history of felons’ voting rights in Florida and said “there is nothing unconstitutional about Florida’s re-enfranchisement scheme.” 

Lagoa argued that Amendment 4 is an expansion of the state’s existing executive clemency process.

The law that implemented Amendment 4 also provides additional ways for felons to meet their financial obligations, she noted. It allows payees to terminate the debts, allows courts to convert the monetary obligations to community service, and gives judges the authority to modify the original sentencing orders, Lagoa wrote.

“All indigent felons have alternative avenues available, and some will succeed in pursuing those avenues,” she added.

Voting-rights groups that challenged the 2019 law decried Friday’s ruling and indicated they would not drop the legal battle.

“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote. The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy,” Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in a prepared statement.

But DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo said the 11th Circuit’s decision affirmed that “all terms” of a sentence “means all terms.”

“Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive,” Piccolo said in an email.

William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion that Florida officials are not under any obligation to provide information about financial obligations to potential voters, referring to the issue as “a fundamental confusion in this litigation.”

“States 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. So long as a state provides adequate procedures to challenge individual determinations of ineligibility --- as Florida does --- due process requires nothing more,” he said.

But Jordan vehemently disagreed.

“I know of no cases (or other authorities) that say or hold that a state can impose a condition for the exercise of a right or privilege, and then refuse to explain to a person what the condition consists of or how to satisfy it,” Jordan said.

Florida lacks a single database that felons, attorneys or state and local elections officials can consult to determine whether people have outstanding financial obligations. County officials are handling the process differently, according to court testimony.

“What a great system Florida has set up. If the stakes were not so high, it would be laughable and deserving of a Dave Barry article lampooning the state’s bureaucratic incompetence and malfeasance,” Jordan scoffed. “The right to vote --- even if considered a state-created benefit for re-enfranchised felons --- is too important to be denied in this inconsistent, unorderly, and nonsensical manner.”

In a separate opinion addressing concerns raised by the dissenting judges, William Pryor elaborated on the need to “to explain a difficult truth about the nature of the judicial role.”

“Our duty is not to reach the outcomes we think will please whomever comes to sit on the court of human history,” he wrote in a one-page opinion, joined by Lagoa.