11th Circuit upholds requirement that FL felons pay debts to win back the right to vote

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A federal appeals court has upheld a Florida law requiring felons who have done their time to repay any fines, fees, and restitution obligations before they can win back their right to vote.

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit leaves thousands of former felons nowhere to turn except the U.S. Supreme Court — and it’s not clear whether that court would act in time to allow those felons to vote in the Nov. 3 general election.

The decision provided Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature a significant legal victory.

Ruling 6-4, the appellate court dismissed challenges under the 14th and 24th Amendments and objected to claims the state is depriving felons of the equal protection of the law.

The ruling overturned a federal trial judge in Tallahassee who concluded the law was the equivalent of a constitutionally prohibited poll tax.

It came on the day that the Florida Supreme Court rejected DeSantis’ choice for a vacancy on the state high court.

Denuciations rolled in from civil- and voting-rights organizations.

“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote. The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

The organization represented the plaintiffs along with the Brennan Center for Justice, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, whose Leah Aden said:

“It also is not lost on us that erecting a monetary barrier to the ballot box significantly and disproportionately harms Black returning citizens in Florida. This decision sanctions Florida’s ability to require a long-prohibited poll tax to vote and prolongs confusion for people who may owe monetary amounts that are unknown or difficult to determine, even by Florida.”

Common Cause Florida Chair Liza McClenaghan called the ruling “anathema to our country’s values. Our republic is stronger when more people participate. The ability to vote should never be conditioned on economic circumstances. The ‘demos’ in democracy means all the people decide, not the moneyed people.”

Judges Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, elevated to the 11th Circuit late last year from the Florida Supreme Court, to which DeSantis had appointed them soon after taking office in 2018, sided with the majority opinion written by Judge William Pryor.

The majority concluded the state was not imposing an undue burden on felons seeking voting rights restoration.

“The people of Florida could rationally conclude that felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including paying their fines, fees, costs, and restitution, are more likely to responsibly exercise the franchise than those who have not,” Pryor wrote.

“If a state may decide that those who commit serious crimes are presumptively unfit for the franchise … it may also conclude that those who have completed their sentences are the best candidates for reenfranchisement,” he wrote.

Lagoa wrote separately to emphasize that felons have alternatives to paying the “legal financial obligations,” or LFO, meaning the financial penalties at issue. They include executive clemency provided by the governor and Florida Cabinet entirely at their discretion.

“Some indigent felons will be granted clemency. Some will have their LFOs converted to community service hours. Some will have their original sentencing order modified by a court. And some will have their debts terminated by the payee. All indigent felons have alternative avenues available, and some will succeed in pursuing those avenues,” Lagoa wrote.

However, Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, noted that the the governor hasn’t allowed a clemency hearing in 282 days.

“Although this ruling is a setback, we cannot allow ourselves to be set back in our pursuit of justice for those who have paid their debt to society,” Fried said.

“This decision must only renew our fight to ensure all Floridians can exercise their constitutional right to vote. The goal of Amendment 4 can be achieved through Florida’s clemency system, even in its current, broken state.”

A dissent by Judge Adalberto Jordan emphasized the difficulties facing felons seeking reenfranchisement, including the lack of state records confirming whether felons face financial obligations or what they amount to.

He noted that the Florida Division of Elections had identified “more than 85,000 registered voters with felony convictions whose eligibility had to be screened” and doing so might stretch into the 2030s.

Judge Jill Pryor wrote a separate dissent “only to add context and echo the outrage of my fellow dissenting colleagues.”

“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,” she wrote.

“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.”

Judge Beverly Martin wrote a separate dissent. With passage of Amendment 4 by 64 percent of the voters, “Florida gained an obligation to establish procedures sufficient to determine the eligibility of returning citizens to vote, and to notify them of their eligibility in a prompt and reliable manner,” she wrote.

“The majority’s decision to vacate the district court’s injunction and reverse its holding on procedural due process grounds relieves the state of Florida of this obligation expected of it by its people.”

Correction: This story has been changed to property attribute the “If this is not a nullification of the will of the electorate …” quote to Judge Jill Pryor.