By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — An amendment to the Florida Constitution restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences does not require payment of “legal financial obligations,” as ordered in a state law passed this spring, plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the law argue in a new court filing.
But even if it does, that shouldn’t block automatic restoration of voting rights established in the constitutional amendment from taking effect, lawyers for voting-rights groups and civil-rights advocates wrote in a memorandum of law filed late last week.
“Ending permanent disenfranchisement for the majority of returning citizens and re-enfranchising over a million Floridians is a sufficiently ‘compelling purpose’ that the court may infer that Florida voters would have approved restoration even absent an LFO (legal financial obligation) requirement,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.
Implementation of what appeared on last November’s ballot as Amendment 4 was one of the most contentious issues of the legislative session that ended in May.
The amendment granted voting-rights restoration to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation,” excluding people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
But a partisan firestorm among lawmakers erupted over the meaning of “all terms of their sentence,” with the Republican-dominated Legislature finally passing a measure (SB 7066) that requires payment of all “legal financial obligations,” including court-ordered restitution, fines and fees, for people convicted of felonies to be eligible to have voting rights restored.
Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit shortly after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure into law.
The plaintiffs argued, among other things, that linking payment of financial obligations with voting rights amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax and discriminates on the basis of wealth.
But lawyers for DeSantis and his administration asked U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to dismiss the case, arguing that the dispute should be resolved in state — not federal — court. In the midst of the federal court fight, the governor asked the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in, hoping that the federal court would defer to the state court’s interpretation of what Amendment 4 requires.
Also, Republican lawmakers have said they needed to pass legislation this spring to carry out details of the constitutional amendment and that the law is more permissive than the language of the amendment.
Hinkle introduced a new wrinkle into the lawsuit last month, asking both sides to explain whether the amendment itself violates the U.S. Constitution, and what it would mean if it does.
“If it should turn out that the Florida constitutional provision, Amendment 4, also provides that a plaintiff cannot vote unless the plaintiff satisfies all the financial obligations, then the question becomes, what happens if that’s unconstitutional?” Hinkle said during an Aug. 15 hearing.
Responding to the judge’s request, lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote “there is no textual or legal basis for interpreting Amendment 4 to require payment of LFOs (legal financial obligations) as a condition precedent to automatic rights restoration.”
The plaintiffs also argued against waiting for the Florida Supreme Court — which has a conservative majority, following the appointment of three justices by DeSantis early this year — to weigh in on the issue.
Delaying a decision until the state court rules on the matter “would take considerable time and threaten to unlawfully disenfranchise plaintiffs in the upcoming presidential primary election,” the plaintiffs wrote, noting that the federal court “faces a tight schedule” to decide on the case. The presidential primary is scheduled for March 17.
Even if the Florida court says that Amendment 4 requires payment of financial obligations, Hinkle can block that requirement from going into effect “without disturbing the automatic restoration of voting rights that over 64 percent of Florida voters supported in November 2018,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.
If the amendment requires payment of financial obligations, that provision “can easily be severed” from the remainder of the amendment, the lawyers wrote.
“Moreover, even if the court were to find otherwise, the result would not be to return to the pre-Amendment 4 scheme. The clearest intent of voters was to limit permanent disenfranchisement to only those convicted of felony murder or felony sexual offense,” they argued.
A coalition of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, pushed the constitutional amendment as an alternative to the state’s cumbersome restoration-of-rights process, which can be expensive and take years for felons to navigate. The process has required felons, called “returning citizens” by proponents of the amendment, to wait at least five years to ask the governor and Cabinet, acting as the state clemency board, to restore civil rights, including the right to vote.
To bolster their argument that the financial obligations can be severed from the rest of the amendment, the plaintiffs relied in part on a federal lawsuit that challenged a Florida constitutional amendment setting term limits for elected officials, including federal officials.
A federal court decided that, while the amendment could not limit the amount of time federal elected officials spent in office, the term limits affecting state legislators and Cabinet members could remain intact.
“So too here, in that even if some part of voters’ purpose was to limit automatic rights restoration to those who had completed payment of LFOs in addition to their term of incarceration, probation, and parole, severing that unconstitutional requirement does not defeat the overall purpose of extending automatic rights restoration to individuals who have completed their sentence,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote.