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Appeals Court Decides Ex-Felons ‘Failed to Prove’ Florida’s Voting Condition Is Unconstitutional ‘Poll Tax’

The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, in a massive 200-page document on Friday, decided that ex-felons failed to prove that Florida’s voting requirements amount to an unconstitutional poll tax.

The Republican-governed state of Florida has fought to prevent ex-felons from voting until all fines and fees associated with their convictions have been paid in full. Those efforts have cost Florida taxpayers nearly $2 million and may ultimately cost hundreds of thousands more than that, the Orlando Sentinel reported last month.

Amendment 4, which passed with more than 65 percent of the vote in 2018, automatically restored voting rights to ex-felons who had “completed all of the terms of their sentences.” The measure was initially expected to return the vote to as many as 1.5 million Floridians. Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) lawyers have long argued that completing all terms of the sentence includes all fines and fees; opponents say that such a condition amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax,” especially in cases where an individual is unable to pay. Gov. DeSantis prevailed on Friday.

Chief Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, penned the opinion of the court. The decision was 6-4, with Trump appointees joining Pryor in most sections of the opinion and Obama/Clinton appointees dissenting in all.

Here’s what the chief judge said, summarizing the context and conclusion of the court [emphases ours]:

Florida has long followed the common practice of excluding those who commit serious crimes from voting. But in 2018, the people of Florida approved a historic amendment to their state constitution to restore the voting rights of thousands of convicted felons. They imposed only one condition: before regaining the right to vote, felons must complete all the terms of their criminal sentences, including imprisonment, probation, and payment of any fines, fees, costs, and restitution. We must decide whether the financial terms of that condition violate the Constitution.

Several felons sued to challenge the requirement that they pay their fines, fees, costs, and restitution before regaining the right to vote. They complained that this requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to felons who cannot afford to pay the required amounts and that it imposes a tax on voting in violation of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment; that the laws governing felon reenfranchisement and voter fraud are void for vagueness; and that Florida has denied them procedural due process by adopting requirements that make it difficult for them to determine whether they are eligible to vote. The district court entered a permanent injunction that allows any felon who is unable to pay his fines or restitution or who has failed for any reason to pay his court fees and costs to register and vote. Because the felons failed to prove violation of the Constitution, we reverse the judgment of the district court and vacate the challenged portions of its injunction.

A group of plaintiffs represented by the ACLU initially sued over DeSantis’s requirements, arguing that conditioning voting on payment of fines violated the 24th Amendment’s guarantee against poll taxes.

After a trial, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle—a Bill Clinton appointee—ruled in favor of plaintiffs, calling Florida’s law a “pay-to-vote system” (a poll tax). DeSantis appealed the Eleventh Circuit. After a three-judge panel in February ruled that Florida couldn’t keep indebted ex-felons from voting, the full panel of judges on the Eleventh Circuit Court agreed to rehear an appeal in the case.

“The District Court gave this case the careful consideration mandated by the important right at stake, and properly concluded that Florida’s requirement that felons pay fees and costs associated with their case to be eligible to vote is properly classified as a tax,” opponents of the law have argued. “That ends the inquiry, since it is beyond question that the Twenty-fourth Amendment prohibits such a tax as a precondition to voting in a federal election—which is precisely what Florida has done.”

A 10-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit heard oral arguments on Aug. 18. The court handed down the opinion less than a month later, vacating Hinkle’s judgment and vacating an injunction.

“For the reasons set forth in the majority opinion and this concurrence, Florida’s felon reenfranchisement scheme is constitutional. It falls to the citizens of the State of Florida and their elected state legislators, not to federal judges, to make any additional changes to it,” Chief Judge Pryor wrote.

Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan, a Barack Obama appointee, penned a dissent that spanned 100 pages. The dissent was joined three other circuit judges and began with a blunt quote from the American Bar Association: “Failure to pay court fines and fees should never result in the deprivation of fundamental rights, including the right to vote.”

Jordan wrote that the State of Florida is actually trying to “suffocate Amendment 4.”

“Critically, the fact that Florida had restored voting rights to 0 felons as of the time of trial indicates that this scheme does not “rationally” further the goal of re- enfranchising felons. Instead, it shows that Florida’s organs of government are doing their best to slowly but surely suffocate Amendment 4,” he wrote.

In closing, Circuit Judge Jordan said, “If this is not a nullification of the will of the electorate, I don’t know what would be.”

“And it is a dream deferred for the men and women who, having paid their debt to society to the extent of their capacity—often by having served lengthy prison sentences and periods under supervision—are deprived of the franchise that Amendment 4 promised to automatically restore,” Jordan concluded. “The majority today deprives the plaintiffs and countless others like them of opportunity and equality in voting through its denial of the plaintiffs’ due process, Twenty-Fourth Amendment, and equal protection claims. I dissent.”

[Image via Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.