TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A federal judge issued a ruling Friday temporarily blocking a Republican-backed Florida law that barred some felons from voting because of their inability to pay fines and other legal debts.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle could pave the way for thousands of felons who were denied the right to vote to regain the ability to cast ballots unless the state gets a higher court to intervene or if Hinkle later upholds the constitutionality of the state law.
At issue is whether Florida lawmakers can require released felons to first pay all outstanding fines, restitution and other legal debts before they can regain the right to vote under last year's voter-approved Amendment 4.
Hinkle was particularly sympathetic to arguments made by lawyers representing disenfranchised felons who asserted that the financial requirement was akin to a poll tax.
With Florida's history of close races, the case is not an inconsequential one. Democrats and Republicans alike have sought to develop an advantage at the ballot box. With next year's high stakes presidential election looming, Florida will likely again be an intensely fought battleground.
Studies have shown disenfranchisement tends to take more votes from Democratic candidates, but it is unclear which party re-enfranchised felons are more likely to support in Florida.
While Hinkle appeared to recognize the state's authority to stipulate that fines and other debts must be paid before a criminal sentence can be considered completed, he said "the last word will belong to the Florida Supreme Court."
The state's high court could very well entertain that question when it considers the law as part of a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis for an advisory opinion.
Hinkle said that was not an issue that he was ready to answer as part of his ruling for a temporary injunction against the state.
Both sides are expected to begin pleading their full case before Hinkle in April. Even then, the case could be far from final because of appeals.
In his opinion, Hinkle said a felon's inability to pay raises constitutional questions, noting that about 80% of the state's felons have unpaid financial obligations imposed by courts during sentencing.
As many as 1.4 million felons who have completed their sentences regained voting privileges under a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters last fall. But the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year passed a bill - later signed by DeSantis - stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other financial obligations to complete their sentences.
Both sides found victory in Hinkle's ruling.
"Today's ruling affirms the governor's consistent position that convicted felons should be held responsible for paying applicable restitution, fees and fines while also recognizing the need to provide an avenue for individuals unable to pay back their debts as a result of true financial hardship," Helen Aguirre Ferre, the governor's spokeswoman, said in an email.
She said the governor would consider options "on addressing a pathway for those who are indigent and unable to address their outstanding financial obligations."
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law were in court earlier this month seeking the preliminary injunction, which was granted in part Friday by Hinkle.
The case was filed on behalf of a group of Floridians who are seeking to have their voting rights reinstated.
"The court held that the right to vote cannot be denied based on a person's inability to pay fines and fees. This ruling recognizes the gravity of elected officials trying to circumvent Amendment 4 to create voting roadblocks based on wealth," said Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the ACLU's Voting Rights Project.
While the ruling applies to the 10 individuals challenging the law, it could have broader implications as elections officials set up mechanisms to make it easier for other felons unable to pay their legal debts to vote.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee said her department was reviewing the order but would comply with the ruling and provide guidance to local elections officials.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.