The Florida Supreme Court ruled this week that former felons must pay all outstanding fines and fees before having their voting rights restored under a constitutional amendment passed in 2018. The controversial ruling seeks to clarify outstanding questions raised in the execution of the amendment.
Supporters of the ruling, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, say voting is a privilege; and paying fines, fees and restitution is part a felon’s punishment. Critics say requiring the payments amounts to a poll tax.
The Florida Roundup examined the issue. Hosts Tom Hudson and Melissa Ross talked about the restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions with State Senator Jeff Brandes, R-Pinellas County, and Neil Volz of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Here's an excerpt of their conversation:
Transcript is edited for clarity.
The Florida Roundup: Let’s start with your reaction to the court opinion, the advisory opinion that came out earlier this week. What is it?
NEIL VOLZ: Just so people know who we are. we’re the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. We're an organization that's led by returning citizens, people with past felony convictions like myself. Our membership, our returning citizens, we've got chapters all over the state. And this is a reminder of the power of Amendment 4. That Amendment 4 represented the largest expansion of democracy we've seen in the country in the last 50 years. And we're working through that process. This is yet another step.
And we've obviously remained consistent about what completion of sentence means. And that's why we worked so hard with the judicial circuits, with the Florida legislature, with fellow citizens to develop pathways for people with financial obligations to complete their sentences. This is just another step in that process, a process that is still continuing today.
The Florida Roundup: It's a very measured response here, Neil. You were part of the organization, of course, that pushed this case forward, so to speak. And the governor released this letter asking for the high court's opinion, which came out this week. And part of the arguments that were made was that the supporters of the amendment, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the Floridians for a Fair Democracy, your group acknowledged in previous iterations that a full serving of a sentence included all four corners. In other words, included the fines and fees and restitution. Did it not?
NEIL VOLZ: From our perspective, from the get go, we have operated with several basic kind of premises. One, we're operating from the basic values of the belief in forgiveness, restoration and redemption. And we saw that connect with people all across the state.
We also operated on a basic understanding that completion of sentence included financial obligations. And we're now getting into the process where, you know, litigators are going to litigate. Legislators are going to legislate, administrators are going to administrate. And we are really focused as an organization on the people, our North Star are the real lives of real people who are operating today under the letter of the law. And also understanding that those systems and processes around us that are shifting based on different court decisions, based on different legislative maneuvering, but that we are focused squarely on the well-being of returning citizens. And so, we will move quickly with urgency today because we don't think we have a minute to waste when you're talking about somebody's life.
The Florida Roundup: With that focus, Neil, on the people affected here, should fines, fees and restitution be considered to be included in terms of a sentence, which is a key phrase in the amendment?
NEIL VOLZ: We campaigned all across the state talking about the simple concept like a universal truth that we found that people could connect with from all backgrounds. And there was this idea that when a debt's paid, it's paid. And included in that process was an acknowledgement that that meant financial obligations. We talked about restitution. We talked about finishing probation, which includes financial obligations. And so, we understand that there's this process right now of kind of making sure that we dig in a little bit deeper into exactly what that means. And we're going to operate and we're going to let these things come to us. And we're just going to get up every day and continue to move forward, looking out for the best interests of the real people impacted by these things.
So, I think that sometimes we get questions asked of us a little bit more from the perspective of like, oh, is this an R or D? Is this a red or blue? Is this a yes or no? And we're a little bit like we see it from a little bit of all those angles. And we're really just focused on like, hey, how does this impact somebody live? And right here, right now in Fort Myers or Fort Lauderdale or Tampa and what does that mean in their real life and how can we help them?
The Florida Roundup: It sounds like you to some degree agree with the court advisory opinion that all terms of a sentence – and the phrase includes restoration, fines and fees.
NEIL VOLZ: That is something that we have talked about. We supported a piece of legislation in the legislature last time that included financial obligations as a part of that definition. So again, I think that there's 38, 40 pages of that advisory opinion and it is an advisory opinion. I know that that has a different application in the law, but it also might have a real-world implication in terms of how the Amendment 4 is administered through the secretary of state, the division of Elections.
Its impact might be seen more on the regulatory side immediately. So really for us, we come at this more from a morality perspective. I created a breach in my community when I broke the law. And for me to have full restoration includes making sure that I'm fully paid back and dealt with the punishment that my sister community gave to me so that I can become a better member of my community, helped lead to take those negatives and turn them into a positive.
The beautiful thing about Amendment 4 was on Election night. People were not voting for a political cause. They were not voting for a politician or even an ideology. They were voting for a friend, a neighbor, a loved one, someone they knew and love won the day that day. And we want to continue to operate with this spirit that underneath all of these administrative and legal conversations are real people in our communities.
We can make Florida a better place if we just keep taking steps forward together. So, yeah, I know sometimes that makes it so hard to kind of get into the discourse.
The Florida Roundup: The language in the amendment was really in focus here with the state Supreme Court focused in the federal case as well, which we can talk about a little bit later on, and not to parse the language at all. The high court really, in its opinion, didn't want to parse the language. It wanted to take it real world meanings in context. And so, it led to this advisory opinion that fees, fines and restitution is included in the phrase terms of sentence, all terms of a sentence. So, what is the impact of this advisory opinion here, for instance, as we're moving up to a presidential preference primary in March in Florida?
NEIL VOLZ: I think what we can anticipate seeing in terms of its immediate impact will be that the division of elections and the secretary of state's office will begin to promulgate rules and we'll begin to administer underneath the guidance of this advisory opinion. The eligibility requirements that currently exist under Senate Bill 766.
I think what we're going to see is somebody who's walking with returning citizens in every county of this state, is that we're going to start to see more questions and people going to, you know, call us and ask us, you know, hey, what does this mean?
I got a letter in the mail or you know what, I'm trying to figure out my fines and fees situation. Can you connect me up with a person who can help me with that? And that's kind of our role here is, is that we walk with returning citizens. We are returning citizens, and it's through the application of the law and a commitment to completely operating under the letter of the law that we begin to see the challenges faced by returning citizens. And we think that that can be helpful, because we've seen that there are legislators and people who are willing to listen, who can then change those policies to help create a better system going forward.
The Florida Roundup: Sen. Brandes, a coalition of civil rights groups has condemned this advisory opinion from the Florida Supreme Court. Among them, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice. They've said the ruling cannot alter what the constitution requires, that the state cannot deny people the right to vote because of an inability to pay financial obligations. So, what's your response to the critics of this issuing of the opinion? They're calling it a modern-day poll tax here in Florida.
JEFF BRANDES: I think you started by saying that I wrote this piece of legislation. But understand, all we did from this legislation is take the exact same words that were in the constitutional amendment that said you had to pay all terms of your sentence and include those in the legislation.
So, what we're focused on here is what voters believe. What did they understand? Was it confusing or was it straightforward? Was the language on the constitutional amendment very straightforward and easily understood? Because if it wasn't easily understood, if there's some confusion about the language of all terms of sentence, then the Supreme Court then has to go back and say, well, should we just remove this constitutional amendment from the ballot? I mean, should we undo what the voters did? Because there was some confusion as to the language, should we throw this back off of the ballot and undo that?
The Florida Roundup: At the time, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition really criticized the legislature on this. They said that the amendment was self- executing. They pointed out that more than 60 percent of the voters overwhelmingly approved it in a bipartisan fashion. Now, let me ask you, you have been critical of the inconsistent way Florida levies, fines and fees. A lot of people who have them don't even know how much they owe. There is no state agency tasked with tracking the data. The state doesn't know how much restitution is even owed cumulatively. The levy wildly varying fines and fees depending on the jurisdiction. There's no rhyme or reason to it. Is it fair to ask people to track down how much they owe? And is it fair to ask an indigent person to pay off what could be tens of thousands of dollars in fines for an offense that happened a long time ago and the penalties keep mounting up cumulatively? Is that fair?
JEFF BRANDES: I think the question is, is this what the constitution requires? If you go back and listen to the testimony of the attorney for Amendment 4, John Mills, he was the professor emeritus at the University of Florida. John Mills stood up there and the justices asked many of those questions. How does this process unfold? How do you vision this? What's included in all terms of sentence? And he clearly set all terms of sentence means all terms of sentence, everything within the four corners of the sentencing document. And he actually went through the process that he believed someone would have to go through.
He said they'd have to go back and check with their clerks. Everything is on the felon to get it resolved. It's that the burden lies with them.
The Florida Roundup: There has been a wealth of data to show that it's sometimes almost impossible for people to even find out how much they owe because the state has kept records in such a disorganized way.
JEFF BRANDES: I think the question really was it was a bifurcated choice up until last year. You're either a felon or you were not a felon. So, the question that the state never had to keep that information in a format by which we had to determine how much you consistently owed… and in multiple jurisdictions, because you committed a felony in four different counties,
There was no running up the flagpole. It was, are you a felon or you're not a felon? And that had been essentially the way it had been since time immemorial in Florida. And then we changed the law in November and the law went into effect in January. It's hard to imagine a system that could stand up in two months in the entire state of Florida to try to fix this.
The Florida Roundup: Let me ask you this as a follow up. Governor DeSantis tweeted out yesterday that voting is a privilege when he supported this decision. Do you believe that voting is a right or that simply is privilege?
JEFF BRANDES: No, absolutely. It's a right, but it's a right you must maintain. It's a right that you that you maintain in Florida under the constitution of the state of Florida. By being a felon, if you if you are a felon, one who has paid all terms of your sentence.