Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking the Florida Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on whether fees, fines and restitution must be paid before felons regain voting rights.
TALLAHASSEE – The ballot measure approved overwhelmingly by Floridians last fall to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons in the nation’s biggest presidential toss-up state landed Wednesday in a new legal arena – the state Supreme Court.
Justices are being asked by Gov. Ron DeSantis for an advisory opinion on whether the term “completion of all terms of sentence” means that felons must pay all fees, fines and restitution ordered by a court before regaining the right to vote.
The Republican-led Florida Legislature included the requirement in a new state that laid out how Amendment 4 — the felon voting rights initiative — will be implemented. But that measure is being challenged by advocacy groups and last month was called an “administrative nightmare” by a federal judge, who ruled that an inability to pay court debts should not block anyone from registering to vote.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle urged the Legislature to consider rewriting the law. But he also scheduled a trial in April on whether the standard violates equal protection and due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution, and amounts to what critics call a “poll tax,” a segregationist-era tactic that kept many black and poor voters from registering.
DeSantis is looking for support in the lengthy legal fight over the law from the seven-member Supreme court — which has three justices he appointed in January.
“Elections are coming, indeed, we had some yesterday,” Joe Jacquot, DeSantis’s general counsel, told justices. “And the governor has the responsibility to protect the integrity of the electoral process.”
DeSantis is a close ally of President Donald Trump, who likely must carry Florida next year to win a second term. Voting rights groups have been looking to register felons — dubbed returning citizens — before next year’s elections, but uncertainty over the new law has slowed efforts.
Jacquot said the “plain language” of Amendment 4 should be used by justices to form their opinion. But in an hour-long hearing Wednesday, attorneys for the governor, secretary of state, House and Senate leaders and advocacy groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, ranged over a wide legal landscape.
Amendment 4 advocates argued to justices that they should not give DeSantis the advisory opinion, arguing there is no legal precedent for it. They maintain that money owed by felons should not prevent them from registering to vote.
Still, in arguments before justices in 2017 — before Amendment 4 was approved for the ballot — attorney Jon Mills, dean emeritus of the University of Florida law school and an author of Amendment 4, said that financial obligations would have to be paid as part of completing a criminal sentence.
That statement, along with campaign brochures and newspaper reports were cited by Justice Barbara Lagoa as apparently contradicting the advocacy groups’ current stance.
“There were different op-ed pieces, there were voter guides that specifically discussed what was meant by ‘all terms of sentence,’ including all fines, restitution, probation and parole. I have reams here of editorials... that made it clear that this included restitution and fines,” Lagoa said.
Anton Marino, attorney for the ACLU, tried to keep justices focused on the ballot summary – which does not mention financial obligations.
“This court typically begins its analysis with the title and summary,” Marino said.
Marino also cited to justices an analysis by UF political scientist Daniel Smith, who told a federal court last month that more than 80 percent of people with felony records have outstanding court-related financial obligations, leaving them ineligible to vote under the state’s new law until those debts are paid.
“Every person unable to pay is serving a life sentence,” Marino said, adding: “adopting the governor’s interpretation leads to an absurd result that contravenes the chief purpose of the amendment ratified by the voters.”