A full panel of federal judges on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits in Atlanta, has agreed to hear a case on the alleged “modern day poll tax” in the State of Florida. Such so-called en banc hearings are rare; this hearing could result in ex-felons being ultimately denied the ability to vote in the 2020 election.
Three judges sitting on the Eleventh Circuit (two were circuit judges; one was a district court judge who filled in for the case) agreed in a 78-page opinion issued Feb. 19 that Florida officials could not ban a group of seventeen ex-felons from voting. The ruling sparked hope that it would be applied broadly to include all ex-felons affected by two Florida laws which in concert required them to pay money before choosing candidates for elected offices.
The litigation followed Florida’s 2018 Amendment 4, which—as the Eleventh Circuit explained—”automatically restored voting rights to ex-felons who had completed all of the terms of their sentences.” Amendment 4 resulted, the circuit court believed, in “as many as 1.4 million felons” being “eligible for reenfranchisement” as voters. The Amendment was considered the largest re-enfranchisement of voters since the 19th Amendment of 1920, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the 26th Amendment of 1971, the court noted.
The problem was a Florida Senate bill which implemented Amendment 4’s provisions The bill required ex-felons to pay fines, fees, and restitution, collectively known as “legal financial obligations” or “LFOs,” before reenfranchisement could legally occur.
A group of 17 litigants argued that the legislature’s connection of LFO payments to Amendment 4’s guarantee of voting rights ultimately resulted in a poll tax. Poll taxes are banned by the U.S. Constitution’s 24th Amendment:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
The Feb. 19th Circuit Court opinion did not reach the core 24th Amendment claims, but it did restore voting rights on other constitutional grounds:
Because the LFO requirement punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can—and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box—Supreme Court precedent leads us to apply heightened scrutiny in asking whether the requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to these plaintiffs. When measured against this standard, we hold that it does and affirm the preliminary injunction entered by the district court.
The reason the Eleventh Circuit did not take up the perhaps-easier-to-understand 24th Amendment argument was because the judges felt it was not legally ripe for consideration at the appellate court level, given that the lower federal district court didn’t properly address it. The Eleventh Circuit explained the procedural stumbling block a footnote (internal punctuation removed):
In the proceedings below, the plaintiffs argued that Florida’s re-enfranchisement scheme operated as an unconstitutional poll tax. The district court, in dicta, discussed the plaintiffs’ Twenty-Fourth Amendment claim at some length. In particular, it observed that while none of the financial obligations at issue are formal poll taxes, and fines and restitution plainly do not qualify as “other taxes,” it was debatable whether routine fees imposed during the criminal process would qualify. Nevertheless, because the district court expressly declined to rule on the merits of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment claim, we do not address it either. When an appeal is taken from the grant or denial of a preliminary injunction, the reviewing court will go no further into the merits than is necessary to decide the interlocutory appeal.
A group of almost all judges on the Eleventh Circuit will now hear the case. (One judge recused herself; a newly appointed judge chose not to participate in the matter.)
[Image via Michael Reaves/Getty Images]
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