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Questions Remain After Felons’ Rights Ruling

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee has sent a memo to county elections supervisors with direction about complying with a federal judge’s ruling on felons’ voting rights --- but questions remain about how the state will move forward. 

“In the interim, we are currently evaluating the order and considering our options,” Lee said in the memo, which her office provided Wednesday to The News Service of Florida. “We will offer subsequent guidance as may be needed. In the meantime, if you have any specific questions regarding compliance, please don’t hesitate to contact us.”

The memo came after an Oct. 18 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in a case stemming from a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored the voting rights of felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation,” excluding people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

The Legislature this spring passed a law to carry out the amendment, but the law drew federal court challenges because it requires felons to pay “legal financial obligations,” such as restitution, fines and fees, to get their rights restored. Civil-rights and voting-rights organizations have compared the financial requirements in the law to a “poll tax.”

Hinkle disputed the characterization of a poll tax, but his ruling said Florida cannot deny the right to vote to felons who have served their sentences and are “genuinely unable” to pay legal financial obligations. He issued a preliminary injunction, however, that applied only to plaintiffs in the case --- and not more broadly to other felons who might be affected.

In the memo to elections supervisors, Lee said Hinkle’s order applies to the 17 plaintiffs and listed their names.

“If any of these 17 individuals show, as part of the process (included in two sections of state law),that they are genuinely unable to pay outstanding financial obligations imposed as part of their felony sentence, they cannot be removed from the voter rolls,” Lee wrote.

In his ruling, Hinkle pointed to a need for state officials to come up with an administrative process in which felons could try to prove that they are unable to pay financial obligations and should be able to vote.

But voting-rights and civil-rights groups acknowledged the limited nature of the ruling. A news release from four groups said the ruling applies only to the individual plaintiffs, “but the court held that the state must provide a quick and efficient process for others who are also unable to pay their legal financial obligations. Until Florida establishes this process, all other returning citizens who owe legal financial obligations are left waiting.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the Capitol, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, indicated lawmakers will look at the issues raised by the ruling.

“The judge has said we need to untangle some of the administrative hurdles, and the Senate’s going to be about its business to work on that,” Galvano, a lawyer, said.

Another part of the legal debate about the constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, will play out next week in the Florida Supreme Court.

Gov. Ron DeSantis in August asked the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion about whether the constitutional amendment’s requirements include “the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations  --- namely fees, fines and restitution ordered by the court as part of a felony sentence that would otherwise render a convicted felon ineligible to vote.”

Justices are slated to hear arguments Nov. 6, and Hinkle’s ruling left resolution of that issue to the state court.

“On this issue of whether Amendment 4 requires payment of financial obligations imposed at the time of sentencing --- and if so, which financial obligations --- the last word will belong to the Florida Supreme Court,” Hinkle wrote.

--- News Service staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.