The Future of Amendment 4 Moves to Appeals Court
This weekend, Americans celebrate the country’s birthday—and the rights and freedoms many of us often take for granted—including the right to vote. As of this week, the future of Amendment 4 in Florida is uncertain.
The constitutional amendment passed in 2018, and made it so that most people with felony convictions “automatically” regain the right to vote once they complete “all the terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” But it’s been the center of a legal battle for more than a year.
In May, a federal judge ruled the state cannot require felons to pay outstanding fines and fees before registering to vote. But this week, a U.S. Appeals Court agreed to hear the case and stopped the lower court’s ruling from taking effect.
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On the Florida Roundup, hosts Melissa Ross and Tom Hudson spoke to Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center.
Here’s an excerpt from the conversation:
MELISSA ROSS: This decision is a real setback for your organization and everyone who fought to expand voting rights in the state for former felons. What are your thoughts about this ruling?
SEAN MORALES-DOYLE: I guess my first thought is that it's only a stay, it's a temporary decision. So the court hasn't overturned the district court's decision here. It has simply suspended it while the court considers the state's appeal. But, yes, it is disappointing that the decision will be stayed. We think it is a very good decision. And the reality is that no matter who wins or loses in this case, without the court's decision in place, it's quite clear that Florida is not capable of administering this law. The result will be that there'll be a lot of people who are confused about whether they're eligible to vote and, frankly, unable to even figure out whether they're eligible to vote. So we're eager to get to the final resolution.
ROSS: The July 20th registration deadline for people to get registered to vote is fast drawing near. The primary is August 18th. But the court has set a hearing date of August 11th. So that's past the registration deadline. If you fall into this bucket of someone in Florida with a prior felony conviction, we're talking nearly a million people. They don't know whether they should register to vote or not, now, right?
MORALES-DOYLE: Yes, I mean, there are some of those million who are sure that they don't owe any amount of money and that they can go and register and vote.
But I think for a very large number of people, they're going to have a really hard time knowing what they can do. The fact is, that even if the law were clear and the rules were clear, it's just really hard to figure out whether you owe money in Florida and how much you owe. That was a big part of why the district court ruled the way it did.
ROSS: The whole ruling that came down from Judge Hinkle was that the, notion that you had to pay fines and fees to vote amounted to a poll tax and that that was unconstitutional. Now, the 11th Circuit issuing this stay has granted the governor's request for a rare review of this decision. Can you explain why this is rare, that we're seeing this play out in this manner?
MORALES-DOYLE: Yeah, it's a little bit of inside baseball, I guess. But the normal appeal to a federal appellate court is heard by a three-judge panel. There are 12 active judges in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but only three of them would hear any given appeal. Occasionally, a party that is dissatisfied with a three-judge decision will ask for the entire 12-judge court to rehear a case. That happens now and again.
What makes this particularly rare is that this isn't a rehearing of a three-judge panel's decision. This is the initial hearing. The state appealed and asked for it to go immediately to the full 12-judge court. That doesn't happen very often. I can't speculate as to why the court decided to go that way. But this case is unique in a number of ways. There was an earlier three-judge panel decision in the case back in February.
And we have the accelerated timeline where we're heading towards an election, not just the August election, but the November election, obviously.
TOM HUDSON: What's your reaction to the U.S. appeals court decision to hear the case and perhaps most importantly to you personally, to stop that earlier court order from taking effect?
DESMOND MEADE: When I heard it, my mind would just went to the fact that this August, I'm going to actually be voting for the very first time in over 30 years. And I think about how many other returning citizens throughout the state of Florida that's been looking forward to participating in these elections and now are being denied that opportunity because of the state. And it frustrates me.
And what exasperates my frustration is the fact that we have a governor who also has the power to grant clemency and restore people's rights. And when you look at what's been going on throughout this entire year, this governor has yet to have one clemency hearing.
Not only are people being shut out right now because of the state, but the governor is also preventing people from participating in our democracy by not even holding clemency hearings and allowing people an opportunity to get their civil rights restored.
HUDSON: The appeals court hearing is August 11th, which is about three weeks after the deadline to register to vote for the August primary here in Florida. What will you do personally? You spoke in the present tense earlier in this conversation, talking about voting in August. I take it you're already registered?
MEADE: I am already registered. And there are countless other returning citizens who are registered and many more who are eligible to register to vote but are not registered yet. And so we will continue to engage.
I think there's a deadline of July 20th in order for a person to participate in the August primaries. And so we're going to do everything within our power to identify those individuals who are qualified to register to vote right now, and even those that may have some minimal financial obligations that we're going to put forth our best efforts to locate them and help them pay off their fines and fees so they can also register before the July 20th deadline.
HUDSON: Are you concerned at all about your ability to vote in August?
MEADE: I'm not concerned about my ability to vote because any and all financial obligations that I may have incurred, have been satisfied. What my heart goes out to are the many individuals who could not afford to pay their financial obligations, but who want to participate in an election, want to be a part of democracy again.
And so my heart hurts for them because we had a pathway there, but this stay have temporarily blocked them from utilizing that pathway, and they have no choice but to either pay their fines and fees, get a court to waive those fines and fees, or wait for the 11th Circuit to issue a ruling. And God knows when that's going to be.