Federal Judge Hammers State On Felon’s Rights

Federal Judge Hammers State On Felon’s Rights

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge on Tuesday excoriated lawyers representing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, accusing the state of trying to “run out the clock” to keep felons from voting in next year’s elections.

The acrimony between U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle and the state’s attorneys came during a hearing in a legal battle over a constitutional amendment designed to restore voting rights to felons who have completed terms of their sentences.

The controversy is centered on whether felons have to pay legal financial obligations, such as restitution, fines and fees, to be able to vote. The Republican-dominated Legislature approved a law this spring that required payment of such obligations, drawing a legal challenge from civil-rights and voting-rights groups.

Hinkle ruled in October that it is unconstitutional to deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable” to pay financial obligations. In a preliminary injunction, Hinkle said state officials need 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.

The state appealed Hinkle’s ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a subsequent motion asking Hinkle to put the case on hold amid the appeal, lawyers for DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee argued that a decision upholding the federal judge’s ruling could render the entire constitutional amendment void because of a lack of “severability.” Under the legal concept of severability, an unconstitutional portion of a law can be eliminated while the rest of the law remains intact. The state maintains that if any part of the felons’ rights amendment is struck down, the entire amendment is void.

Only the Florida Supreme Court can decide whether Hinkle’s ruling would change the amendment so much that Floridians would not have supported the proposal, the state’s lawyers argued in the motion filed Nov. 18. The Florida justices are poised to issue an advisory opinion requested by DeSantis on whether the amendment requires payment of legal financial obligations.

“It is unlikely that Florida voters would have permitted felons to recapture their voting rights without fully repaying their debt to society,” the state’s lawyers wrote in the federal court motion.

But Hinkle, who repeatedly raised his voice while questioning the state’s lawyers, grew increasingly incensed as he spent two hours Tuesday attempting to ascertain whether the papers filed on the governor’s behalf accurately reflected a statement issued by DeSantis’ office in response to the judge’s October ruling.

In the statement, DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferré wrote that Hinkle’s decision affirmed the governor’s position that convicted felons be held responsible for paying restitution, fees and fines while also recognizing “the need to provide an avenue for individuals unable to pay back their debts as a result of true financial hardship.”

The discrepancy between the court filings and Ferré’s statement prompted Hinkle to ask, “Is it the governor’s position that Amendment 4 is a complete nullity,” even if a person is unable to pay legal financial obligations.

“I want to be sure that you don’t just bury it in your papers, that you say it here in public,” the judge asked Nicholas Primrose, deputy general counsel for DeSantis.

Primrose said “what voters thought” they were voting on is a “question that has to be addressed.”

The “indigency exception” created by Hinkle in his ruling would “broaden” what some voters believed they passed, he argued.

But Hinkle wasn’t satisfied, asking Primrose to answer whether it was a nullity or not.

“I’m not sure I can accurately express the governor’s position,” Primrose said, reiterating that the “very critical question of severability” needs to be addressed.

“I’m not accustomed to people coming and saying, ‘Here’s a critical question but I’m not going to tell you my position on it,’ ” Hinkle responded.

Hinkle pressed Lee’s lawyer, Mohammad Jazil, on the same issue.

“Our fear is that … the severability analysis … would suggest that Amendment 4 cannot be severed,” Jazil began.

But Hinkle interrupted him.

“I really don’t want the lawyers’ analysis,” the judge said. “This is a question that the secretary is going to have to take a position and the governor’s going to have to take a position.”

Jazil said the state disagrees with Hinkle’s interpretation requiring an exemption for felons who cannot pay their legal financial obligations. Because the state does not believe the amendment can be severed, it would be void if Hinkle’s ruling is upheld, Jazil said.

“That, we believe, is an absurd outcome,” he added.

The judge continued to tangle with Primrose and Jazil until the state’s lawyers finally conceded the court filings reflected their bosses’ positions.

“We stand by our papers,” Jazil said.

Primrose said DeSantis had approved everything that had been filed on his behalf, and that the amendment would be null if Hinkle’s analysis of the amendment was correct.

“We don’t believe your analysis is correct,” which is why the state appealed, he added.

Hinkle scolded the state on other matters, as well.

Chiding the state for failing to move forward with a process to allow felons who can’t afford to pay their financial obligations to register to vote, Hinkle asked the state what the “irreparable harm” would be in proceeding with the process while the appeal plays out.

Primrose said the state did not want to begin the process until the appellate court had ruled because of the amount of work involved.

“The possibility of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of individuals” registering to vote create a heavy workload for state and local elections officials, Primrose argued. And, if the state wins the appeal, those people would have to be removed from the voting rolls, he said.

“So the irreparable harm’s the administrative burden,” Hinkle asked.

“Yes, your honor,” Primrose said.

Hinkle appeared troubled that the time it will take before the appellate court rules will interfere with people’s ability to register to vote in time for the March presidential primary elections.

Leah Aden, a lawyer who represents the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told Hinkle the state is “going mute” and leaving voter-registration groups “at a loss for what to do.”

It’s “chilling people” because “the state is unwilling to say” what the process is, Aden argued.

Hinkle said the court system determines whether defendants are indigent before their cases are resolved.

The state could establish that defendants who were deemed indigent at the time of their last felony conviction are currently unable to pay their court-ordered fees and fines and allow them to register and vote, Hinkle suggested.

Primrose said “there’s a lot of disagreement” between the plaintiffs and the state on a process to move forward, drawing another rebuke from Hinkle.

“If you really want to comply with the Constitution and let everyone who’s eligible to vote vote, pretty easy,” the judge said. “You put in place a constitutional system, it won’t matter if they (plaintiffs) like it or not. What you can’t do is to run out the clock so that people who are eligible to vote don’t get to vote in the March primary or, more importantly, in the presidential election.”

12 Responses to "Federal Judge Hammers State On Felon’s Rights"

  1. It’s no mystery why Republicans are openly hostile to democracy. When more people can vote, Republicans are more likely to lose elections.

    1. The founding fathers were openly hostile to democracy as well. Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution states in plain English “The United States Govt shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of govt”. We are supposed to be a republic, not a democracy. The founders were intelligent enough to realize that democracy is just another form of tyranny; it’s the tyranny of the 51%. The way we practice democracy – majority rules – is completely evil. Individual rights are not supposed to be violated because the 51% wishes it so. We don’t need everyone voting. We need good, limited govt.

  2. It appears that Hinkle has his own agenda and is overzealous. Governor Desantis and Laurel Lee did not commit these crimes for these felons and are responsible to the victims and citizens of the State of Florida to make sure the felons make full restitution for the crimes they committed before they are allowed to vote again.

  3. Isn’t the statue of Justice blindfolded? Why should the law favor criminals who are “genuinely unable” to pay, as this judge requests? Why should they not have to comply with the law, while criminals who have the means to pay must?

  4. Isn’t part of completing your sentence making it successfully through probation and paying off all your fines, restitution, and costs?

    I believe the issue should be over the prosecutorial misconduct in the state attorney’s office where the political machine were prosecuting bogus cases to retaliate against whistleblowers. Every case that went through the state attorney’s office and Hankinson since the early 2000s was tainted by corruption and needs to be thrown out. Please remove Hankinson and Jack Campbell… another step in cleaning up corruption in this region.

    1. Those convicted of misdemeanors and who’ve not paid all their fines are permitted to vote…people who owe taxes are permitted to vote. People who owe child support are permitted to vote. The real question is – does owing money outweigh your constitutional right to a vote? If so, it should apply to everyone who owes money, not just a felon. The felon has already served prison time to distinguish their serious offense from a minor one. Owing money to the state is as American as voting. Debate me.

  5. Most Felons usually receive 5 to 10 Years of Probation, I don’t see why they can’t Vote when their Probation ends. I just don’t see why they are spending $Millions on this issue. We all know it is about the Democrats trying to look good to Blacks since most Blacks are Democrats and most Felons are Black BUT, at a Percentage, more Blacks DON’T Vote then do and NOT because they CAN’T Vote. If the Republicans would publicly push for letting them Vote after completing their Sentences they would take more Votes away from the Democrats.

  6. I guess this judge thinks he can change the meaning of what voters approved. He says “If you really want to comply with the Constitution and let everyone who’s eligible to vote vote, pretty easy.” Yes Your Honor… it IS pretty easy…according to the law…which you seem to be ignoring…if a felon has not paid the fines, fees, and restitution as stated in their sentence, then they are not eligible to vote. Period. Your job is to uphold the law…even if you disagree with it.

  7. No surprise here unless you are totally ignorant.
    Everyone knows Fed. Judge Hinkle is a flaming liberal. Always has been, always will be, and will never change.

    Thats why everyone should be concerned that:
    If any current or future local usual suspects (like … oh … I don’t know … let’s just say … Andrew Gillum) get caught up in the local FBI corruption investigations and their attorney is savvy enough to get that local usual suspect’s trial in front of Hinkle then Andrew … or whoever … will walk away.

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