A federal judge in Florida appears to be leaning toward repealing at least part of the Sunshine State’s widely-criticized “poll tax” on formerly incarcerated individuals’ right to vote.
The trial, with implications of the utmost national importance, was conducted remotely by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida over the past two weeks and concluded late Wednesday afternoon.
“The Legislature plainly intended that you had to pay the money in order to vote, and if you didn’t pay the money you didn’t vote,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle noted–effectively giving away his intention to rule against the GOP’s SB 7066–and likely proving the axiomatic legal standard that suggests how a judge interprets a law is indicative of how they will rule on the law’s overall constitutionality.
Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project expressed confidence after the day’s proceedings ended.
“We are hopeful the court will recognize the gravity of elected officials trying to circumvent Amendment 4 and will permanently strike down this law,” she said in a statement.
“There is simply no justification for barring people from voting because they are too poor to pay,” added Orion Danjuma, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.
Aside from constitutional tasseography, however, Hinkle has also given prior indications of his hostility to the Florida State legislature’s money-focused rollback of the wildly popular Amendment 4.
In October of last year, Hinkle authored a 55-page opinion determining the Republican-authored poll tax was unconstitutional.
“[T]he State of Florida cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution,” the judge wrote in his initial ruling granting an injunction. “And because, for this purpose, there is no reason to treat restitution differently from other financial obligations included in a sentence, Florida also cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources to pay the other financial obligations.”
Hinkle’s preliminary injunction was upheld by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit earlier this year in a 78-page opinion that found SB 7066 to be a plainly unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
“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,” the appeals court observed in their ruling on the preliminary injunction. “[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.”
And while the appeals court was careful to dispense with a sidelong strategy by the Florida State defendants–including Governor Ron DeSantis (R)–that tried to inject racial discrimination arguments as a poison pill to force the use of different legal standards, Judge Hinkle was more than willing to entertain such arguments and mentioned the impact the poll tax had on different races in Florida.
While noting–and agreeing with DeSantis–that the state hadn’t intentionally targeted minorities through the language used in the poll tax, the judge said there is “clearly a racial impact” due to the fact that formerly incarcerated individuals in Florida are disproportionately African American.
The judge said he was considering issuing a “bold statement” about the constitutionally-flawed law but said his ruling–still likely weeks away from being formally issued–would be practical as well.
“My plan is to enter an injunction that tells you what to do,” Hinkle told a lawyer representing the Florida Secretary of State’s Office. “I expect it to be a whole lot easier to administer than anything you’ve dealt with so far.”
The judge also acknowledged the additional legal wrangling in store for the controversial law as well as the need for speedy resolution of the issue in his own court due to the impending general election this November.
“This will be in a hurry,” Hinkle said. “We need to get the case on up to the 11th Circuit.”
The struggle for and against the newfangled poll tax has been intense since the 2018 midterm elections when Florida voters overwhelmingly gave formerly incarcerated individuals their right to vote. Nearly 70 percent of Floridians voted in favor of re-extending the precious franchise. The passage of Amendment 4 would have allowed 1.5 million previously disenfranchised Floridians the right to vote.
Roughly seven percent of Florida’s entire population stood to gain but this new grant of Civil Rights would have disproportionately impacted the state’s African-American community. Under the prior, 150-year-old system of disenfranchisement, almost 20 percent of Florida’s black population was denied the right to vote.
The GOP, as is their nature, immediately began undermining the law using various methods that culminated in the passage of SB 7066. Voting rights advocates immediately cried “foul” and litigation quickly followed.
“Florida politicians may try all they can to obstruct access to voting, but our commitment to restoring the right to vote to every eligible Florida voter is unwavering,” Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida said in a statement. “Taking Gov. DeSantis to court for enacting a modern-day poll tax in Florida is a testament to that. Senate Bill 7066 is unconstitutional and violates one of our most fundamental rights: the ability to make our voices heard at the ballot box.”
“We believe in restoring their right to vote once and for all–and hope the court will decide on the side of democracy, human dignity, and the will of Florida’s voters,” Tilley added.
Multiple Florida media outlets reporting on the conclusion of the key trial in the key battleground state interpreted the judge’s posture as bad news for the state GOP’s long-running poll tax initiative.
Reform advocates were both cautious and optimistic.
“Over the past week, we’ve heard the state defend trying to put a price tag on the right to vote,” noted Sean Morales-Doyle, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. “That should not stand. We look forward to the court’s final judgment. Once again, we heard overwhelming evidence that SB 7066 violates the Constitution. We heard loud and clear that this law discriminates against black and low-income Floridians and unfairly condemns hundreds of thousands of citizens to permanent disenfranchisement.”
And while litigation thus far over the serially-ruled-unconstitutional law has been applied only and directly to the 17 named plaintiffs in the case, Hinkle previously signaled his intent would be for any eventual scrapping of the poll tax to apply to each and every formerly incarcerated individual in Florida.
[image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images]
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