A federal court struck down a Florida law which denied individuals with prior felony convictions the right to vote if they could not afford to pay certain fees and fines. Tuesday’s decision may ultimately restore the right to vote for some 1.4 million Floridians who would have otherwise been eligible to vote but for the law making that right contingent upon their ability to pay off outstanding fines, fees and restitution.
That law, SB 7066, is now enjoined and cannot take effect for the 17 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit; though voting rights advocates hope the ruling will be interpreted to take effect across Florida. The impetus is now on authorities there to craft their response in line with the court’s opinion.
“That ruling sent a clear message: You can’t condition the right to vote on a person’s wealth,” Sean Morales-Doyle, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law explained in a statement, “It’s been almost six months since the court warned Florida it was violating the Constitution, and the state has done nothing to fix the problem. We hope that with this decision, they will turn their attention towards a solution.”
The state defendants seeking to enforce SB 7066 only have recourse to the Supreme Court–which is unlikely to take up their case during the present term; meaning that the ruling probably won’t be overturned or even considered before the 2020 general election.
The 78-page opinion by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is an all-but total victory for voting rights and Civil Rights advocates who have long complained that Sunshine State Republicans had effectively resurrected Florida’s racist poll tax of the Jim Crow Era under a poorly-disguised legal garb.
“The court unanimously ruled that a person’s right to vote cannot be contingent upon their ability to pay,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project in a press release. “This law is a modern-day poll tax. This ruling recognizes the gravity of elected officials trying to circumvent Amendment 4 to create roadblocks to voting based on wealth.”
“This is a great win for voting rights!” added Myrna Perez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “The Eleventh Circuit told the state of Florida what the rest of America already knows. You can’t condition the right to vote on a person’s wealth.”
In the decision, the court found that “Florida’s re-enfranchisement scheme unconstitutionally punishes a class of [formerly incarcerated people] based only on their wealth.” And, under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, such treatment is not allowable.
The ruling notes, at length [emphasis in original]:
The sanction of disenfranchisement cannot be described merely as a one-time revocation of the right to vote; rather, the punishment visits the [formerly incarcerated person] at each and every election. [Formerly incarcerated people] who are unable to pay (and who have no reasoned prospect of being able to pay) will remain barred from voting, repeatedly and indefinitely, while for those who can pay, the punishment will immediately come to an end.
Because the State has opted to automatically re-enfranchise [formerly incarcerated people] who complete their terms of sentence and pay all of their [fines, fees and restitution], similarly situated formerly incarcerated people] who have otherwise completed their sentences except for the payment of [fines, fees and restitution] they are unable to pay are treated differently on account of their inability to pay. The [formerly incarcerated person] with money in the bank will be re-enfranchised. But the [formerly incarcerated person] who can’t will continue to be barred. Merely because the State could strip the rights of both [formerly incarcerated people] does not mean it can continue punishment for some and not others.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) and others seeking to maintain the law also argued that someone missing a vote–or even a handful–while saving up the money to pay off their fines, fees and restitution wasn’t a big deal and did amount to the legal standard of an irreparable harm. The court rubbished that line of thought entirely.
“Casting a vote has no monetary value,” the judges noted. “It is nothing other than the opportunity to participate in the collective decisionmaking of a democratic society and to add one’s own perspective to that of his or her fellow citizens.Each vote provides a unique opportunity to do that. No compensation a court can offer could undo that loss. The denial of the opportunity to cast a vote that a person may otherwise be entitled to cast—even once—is an irreparable harm.”
While outside critics have pointed to Amendment 4’s racially-discriminatory impact on African Americans, the legal briefs filed by the plaintiffs’ attorneys themselves were careful not to make that argument. Instead, the state defendants were left to complain about those allegations of racism in a last-ditch effort to force the court into taking up specific legal frameworks that deal with American racism in law. Their efforts did not yield the intended results.
“In a final attempt to defeat this conclusion, the State argues that we cannot hold that the [fines, fees and restitution] requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause without proof of discriminatory intent, a proposition for which it cites our race discrimination cases, the decision continues. “But this is not a race discrimination case. The plaintiffs have not so much as suggested that the [fines, fees and restitution] requirement…should be struck down either because it was purposely designed for reasons of race or that it has a racially disproportionate effect. This is a wealth discrimination case.”
“The Voting Restoration Amendment passed with 5.2 million votes and was one of the largest expansions of voting rights in United States history,” said Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida. “Despite the state’s best efforts to dismantle Amendment 4 through SB 7066, today’s ruling affirms what Floridians intended when they passed Amendment 4–to restore to returning citizens their right to vote.”
[image via Joe Raedle/Getty Images]
Editor’s note: this article has been corrected post-publication to clarify that SB 7066 cannot take effect for the 17 plaintiffs on the initial lawsuit and that the current injunction does not apply to Floridians on the whole. A quotation has also been added.
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