A federal appeals court ruled Friday that felons out of prison in Florida must repay all court fines or fees related to their criminal sentences before they can vote, a decision expected to boost President Donald Trump’s chances of winning the state in November’s election.
In a historic voting rights case, the decision by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta represented a major legal and political victory for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP lawmakers. They had limited the voting rights of felons last year under a new state law to those who already paid their fines or fees and served their prison sentences.
The appeals court reversed a ruling this summer by a federal judge in Tallahassee, who called Florida’s system “pay to vote” and said it was unconstitutional.
At stake were voting rights for nearly 1 million felons 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 trial judge determined.
Friday’s verdict boosts Trump’s chances in Florida, where political polls showed a tightening race in recent weeks against former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee. It was unclear whether the hundreds of thousands of new voters might benefit one political party over the other, but Republicans eager to deliver Florida to Trump were responsible for the new voting restrictions on felons.
Florida voters had passed a constitutional amendment generally returning voting rights to felons who had already served their prison sentences and were not convicted of murder or sexual offenses. The Republican-led Legislature later passed a law specifying that felons couldn’t vote until they also had paid their fines.
The deadline to register to vote in November in Florida is Oct. 5, meaning felons would have to pay all overdue court costs by then.
In a rare move, the case was decided by the entire group of federal appeals judges in Atlanta, not just a three-judge panel. Such “en banc” hearings typically occur only a few times each year and are reserved for cases deemed complex or especially significant. A three-judge panel in the same court had previously ruled at least twice against Florida’s governor regarding preliminary issues in the case.
The full court ruled 6-4 in favor of DeSantis.
In its 200-page decision, written by Chief Circuit Judge William Pryor, the court said the restrictions were not illegally discriminatory toward the poor and were constitutional. Even if felons don’t know – or can’t easily determine – whether or how much they may owe, Florida is not obligated to help them or allow them to vote, the court said.
The majority said court fees and fines are punishments, not taxes.
The case was so sensitive – decided just over seven weeks ahead of November’s elections – that Pryor and another judge wrote another section of the opinion defending their decision in the context of history and judicial heroism.
“Our duty is not to reach the outcomes we think will please whomever comes to sit on the court of human history,” Pryor wrote. “We must respect the political decisions made by the people of Florida and their officials within the bounds of our supreme law, regardless of whether we agree with those decisions.”
The dissenting judges said the state’s system was stacked against felons and said they did not believe the majority decision “will be viewed as kindly by history.”
“Florida imposes substantial, often exorbitant, financial obligations on people convicted of felonies – the overwhelming majority of whom are indigent – with no exceptions for those unable to pay,” they wrote.
A spokesman for a group that had represented 17 felons in the case called the verdict deeply disappointing.
“Nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees,” said Paul Smith, vice president at the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org