The Florida Supreme Court has sided with Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican-dominated state legislature on a question that could impact the voting rights of an estimated 800,000 Floridians with felony convictions.
DeSantis asked the court to clarify the definition of “all terms of the sentence” that the legislature used in SB 7066, a law that was passed last legislative session and that he signed into law. The phrase appeared in Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that ended Florida’s lifelong voting ban for people with felony convictions. According to Amendment 4, only people who completed “all terms of the sentence” would be eligible to vote.
SB 7066 interpreted the phrase to include all fines, fees and restitution that someone owes relating to a felony conviction.
The Florida Supreme Court agreed with that interpretation.
In a tweet, Governor DeSantis said he was “pleased” with the preliminary ruling.
“Voting is a privilege that should not be taken lightly, and I am obligated to faithfully implement Amendment 4 as it is defined,” he wrote.
In a joint statement, three groups connected to a separate federal lawsuit challenging SB 7066 expressed disappointment with the state court’s advisory opinion.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Florida, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said that the ruling would not have an impact on the ongoing federal court case, in which they are legal counsel.
“Florida cannot violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections,” reads a statement from the groups. “ The right to vote cannot be contingent on the ability to pay. We will continue fighting in federal court for our clients and the hundreds of thousands of Floridians' voting rights that SB7066 seeks to unconstitutionally and permanently eliminate.”
The federal lawsuit is tackling a different question from the one the Florida Supreme Court was asked to rule on: what happens if someone is unable to pay the fines and fees associated with a criminal case?
In a preliminary decision, federal District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote that people who are “genuinely unable” to pay should still be able to vote. He ordered that the seventeen plaintiffs of the lawsuit should be able to vote in upcoming elections.
“Federal courts and a federal judge have already answered the important question, ‘What can be required of someone before they get their voting rights back?’” Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said in a statement. “The federal court has expressed that Florida cannot deny voting rights to people who are unable to pay their obligations, and nothing in the Supreme Court’s opinion can change that.”
The state has appealed that decision. The DeSantis administration has argued in court filings that if that preliminary injunction is upheld, then all of Amendment 4 should be struck down.
An estimated 80 percent of people with felony convictions in the state of Florida could be impacted by this interpretation, according to expert testimony Judge Hinkle relied on to make his decision in the federal case. With hundreds of millions of dollars owed in fines alone across the state, that could mean up to an estimated 800,000 Floridians.
Despite the pushback from groups connected to the federal lawsuit, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision cited a letter from several of those groups to support its ruling.
In a December 13, 2018 letter, the ACLU of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups wrote to the state that “financial obligations may include restitution and fines, imposed as part of a sentence or a condition of probation under existing Florida statutes.”