Attorneys: Judge’s Historic Ruling In Florida Voting Rights Was Hardly Unexpected

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If there’s one thing both sides agree on about Florida’s historic voting rights case, the federal judge’s decision over the weekend – which grants felons the right to vote even if they can’t pay their court fines or fees – was hardly unexpected.

Even one of the defense lawyers allied with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, Morgan Bentley of Sarasota, said he wasn’t surprised by the decision. The judge had effectively telegraphed his ruling in an earlier, preliminary decision in the case, and he was openly skeptical of some defense testimony during the trial.

But questions remain whether the legal battle is finished, or whether it can be resolved before the 2020 elections. Florida is expected to appeal Sunday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to the federal appeals court in Atlanta – and possibly to the Supreme Court. The governor’s office hasn’t discussed the verdict publicly.

Calling Florida’s system “pay to vote,” Hinkle ruled against DeSantis and the state’s Republican Legislature by declaring their efforts unconstitutional in trying to restrict the voting rights of nearly 1 million felons in Florida who owe court-imposed fines, fees and restitution to their criminal victims. Many can’t afford to pay or don’t know how much they owe, the judge said.

“It means someone guilty of battery on the elderly or theft of retirement income, etc., doesn’t have to pay restitution or costs in order to vote,” wrote Fred Piccolo, the spokesman for the outgoing Republican House speaker, Rep. Jose Oliva of Hialeah, in a tweet Wednesday. “Victims get victimized again and restitution to them be damned.”

In a state where the presidential election can be decided by tens of thousands of votes, Hinkle’s decision could affect who wins Florida in November – and who wins the White House.

Bentley represented the Manatee County elections supervisor, who was a co-defendant in the lawsuit along with the governor and others. He said he expects Florida to appeal the verdict, but he doesn’t expect it to be reversed because of the ruling’s detailed and thoughtful analysis. The judge’s ruling, released over the Memorial Day weekend, ran 125 pages. 

“When it goes up on appeal, I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to say that the judge didn’t think of this issue or that issue,” Bentley said. 

The case included 17 plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Brennan Center for Justice, NAACP and the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center. A lawyer for the campaign legal center, Mark Gaber, said the governor’s thinking about his legal strategy must include knowing that the federal appeals court in Atlanta has twice ruled against Florida in preliminary matters in the case. 

The judge ruled that Florida can enforce payment of legal fees for felons to vote, but it can’t bar those who can’t pay. 

The judge put in place a new system where felons can request an advisory opinion from the Division of Elections listing how much they may owe and whether they are eligible to vote. The answer must come within 21 days or felons can register to vote without fear of prosecution, the judge said. Felons can check a box that says, “I believe I am unable to pay the required amount.”

Florida has an estimated 1.4 million felons, and the judge said nearly 1 million of them owe unpaid fines, fees or restitution. It’s unclear how many will represent that they can’t afford to pay those costs, how many would register to vote or whether they would support Democrats or Republicans. In his verdict, the judge noted trial testimony saying the felon-voting restrictions would have a disproportionate effect on blacks, who generally favor Democrats. 

The new ruling does not affect felons still in prison, or on parole, probation or another form of supervised release. They would still not be eligible to vote in Florida.

The court case could affect the outcome of November’s elections.

“The difference is going to be who gets their people out to vote of those million people, who gets their people registered, who gets them to the polls on election day,” Bentley said. “It’s who gets their people to the ballot box.” 

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at linamruiz@ufl.edu.

About Lina Ruiz

Lina is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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