Florida Supreme Court’s ruling agrees with state: felons have to pay debts before they can vote

The Florida Supreme Court upheld the state’s argument that felons must pay all fines, fees and restitution owed before they can be eligible to vote.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 7066 stipulating such requirements during the 2019 Legislative Session following a ballot initiative passed the previous year. In November 2018, more than 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which approved restoring voting rights for felons.

A federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice – challenges SB 7066 as unconstitutional.

Last October, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle agreed. Then the DeSantis’ administration appealed. Now, the trial, in Hinkle’s Tallahassee courtroom, is scheduled for April.

In the meantime, the state Supreme Court’s ruling was “advisory” because the lawsuit is a federal case.

DeSantis asked the court to issue one to clarify what the court understands the law to mean regarding “completion of a sentence’s terms.”

Four justices agreed with the state’s definition: Chief Justice Charles T. Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos G. Muñiz. Justice Jorge Labarga dissented only on one point regarding voter information.

“There is no basis to conclude that ‘all terms of sentence’ excludes any (legal financial obligations) ordered by the sentencing judge,” the 4-1 opinion states. “Indeed, an abundance of statutory and case law supports the conclusion that fines, restitution and fees and costs all comfortably fit within the ordinary meaning of ‘all terms of sentence.’”

They argue restitution is part of a “sentence” and “although fees and costs can reasonably be said to differ in many respects from restitution and fines, various court pronouncements and statutory provisions similarly support including them within the scope of Amendment 4’s phrase ‘all terms of sentence.’”

Amendment 4 supporters dismissed the court’s ruling.

“Amendment 4 is now a cash register justice tool and will never live up to the promise Florida voters expected,” Florida House Minority Leader Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-West Park, said. “Almost 65 percent of voters in this state chose to restore rights to our returning citizens, regardless of their financial means. We cannot, morally or constitutionally, tie the ability to vote with the ability to pay.”



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