ORLANDO, Fla. — A U.S. appeals court ruled against the state of Florida regarding its interpretation of Amendment 4 Wednesday, saying that making former felons pay fees before voting rights can be restored, particularly when they can't afford to pay, violates the U.S. Constitution.
- Ruling says Florida law sets up wealth classification between felons who can, can't pay
- Court: Florida law violates 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution
- READ: U.S. Appeals Court Ruling
The ruling is a victory for Amendment 4 advocates who say the law passed by the Florida Legislature last year goes against what Florida voters intended when they approved the amendment in 2018.
Amendment 4 allowed non-violent felons who completed their sentence to be granted restoration of their voting rights. The Florida Legislature passed a law requiring payment of outstanding court fees or restitution, saying those fees were part of a sentence, although that was not the case in Florida before that. A Florida Supreme Court advisory opinion released earlier this year stated that those fees should be considered part of a felon's sentence.
Seventeen former felons challenged the law, saying they were all indigent and therefore unable to pay those fees.
The U.S. District 11 Court of Appeals says the requirement punishes those felons who cannot pay more harshly than those who can by denying them voting rights.
"Supreme Court precedent leads us to apply heightened scrutiny in asking whether the requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as applied to these plaintiffs," the court wrote in its opinion. "When measured against this standard, we hold that it does."
In the appeals court ruling, the judges say it's rational for Florida to withhold benefits from felons who have the ability to pay, but withholding benefits from felons who are genuinely unable to pay despite good faith efforts is futile.
The appeals court ruling specifically upholds an injunction by a lower federal court last year. The appeals court says that the injunction gave the state an appropriate remedy option, suggesting the state make provisions for felons who want to vote but are genuinely unable to pay those court fees.
That lower federal court still has set to hold a two-week trial on this matter on April 6.
Desmond Meade, Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition said they’re cautiously optimistic after Wednesday’s ruling. But at the end of the day, he said, the fight to restoring voting rights for felons is far from over.
“I’m a returning citizen, I’m a person that’s at the center of this discussion we’re having right now,” Meade said.
“You’re not a complete citizen until you’re actually able to walk in and vote in the booth and cast a ballot. And when we talk about this country, this is a nation of second chances,” Meade said.
He added, “This fight is not over and the need is not over, because as long as we have an American citizen that wants to vote and can’t vote then there is still work to be done."
Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, responded to the Amendment 4 development in this statement:
“... We applaud that the Federal Appeal’s court recognition of the duplicity of the Florida legislature’s seeking to strip the right to vote from people who are ready to fully participate in society on the specious grounds that, if they are wealthy they can vote, but if they are poor they could not. This wealth barrier to exercising the franchise cannot stand."
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR MARCH 17 FLORIDA PRIMARY?
Spectrum News reached out to Nancy Abudu, Deputy Legal Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Abudu is one of the lawyers representing the 17 plaintiffs in Wednesday's ruling.
She said they don't want to get ahead of themselves.
In the short term, Abudu said it means the 17 and only the 17 can vote in the March 17 Florida Primary if they registered before Tuesday of this week.
Some have already done that, such as Rosemary McCoy who is being represented by the SPLC.
In fact, Abudu confirmed McCoy and another client voted last year in local Jacksonville elections. This was evidence that contradicts the state’s claim that allowing them to vote would cause harm, since they’ve already voted.
There's also the federal trial in April, which is a broader case.
It includes Wednesday's 17 plaintiffs lumped together with other cases related to the implementation of Amendment 4.
If they felon voting rights supporters get another victory, they'll likely prepare for an appeal by the state.
This would take the case back to the federal appeals circuit in Atlanta which decided on Wednesday's injunction.
Abudu said this would take place sometime in May or June.
She said also there is the possibility; Amendment IV could reach all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Abudu said they're taking the process one step at a time.