Federal appeals court will hear novel argument, invoking 19th Amendment, against felon voting restrictions

Leon County
Marjon Neal, 25, field organizer for For Our Future Florida, speaks to a small crowd outside the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center on the first day of early voting in Leon County. CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

A federal appeals court rendered a decisive victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative Republicans last year in upholding Florida’s law requiring felons to pay all fines, fees, and restitution before they can win back the right to vote under 2018’s Amendment 4.

But that ruling, by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, didn’t quite kill every challenge to the law, known as SB 7066.

Novel claims asserting violation of the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended to women the right to vote, are still alive and headed for oral arguments on Thursday in Atlanta.

“[N]either the Supreme Court nor this court has ever addressed the appropriate legal standard that should be applied to a Nineteenth Amendment claim. This court and the parties will benefit from oral argument on a matter of first impression prior to the rendering of a decision of such precedential value,” lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Center argued in a brief filed in March.

Ruling 6-4 in September, the appellate court dismissed challenges under the Fourteenth and Twenty-fourth amendments, including 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.

The plaintiffs now before the court are Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton, two Black women with felony records who have been denied the right to vote under the Florida law because their criminal records prevent them from getting jobs that would pay enough for them to satisfy restitution orders.

The defendants include DeSantis and Laurel Lee, Florida’s secretary of state, who oversees elections.

“Appellants’ lawsuit requires the state of Florida to acknowledge the compounding impact of race, class, and gender in a law like Senate Bill 7066 that ties the payment of legal financial obligations (“LFOs”) to the right to vote, but artificially disentangles the continuing burdens low-income women of color face in satisfying those financial obligations,” their lawyers wrote in their opening brief.

U.S. District Robert Hinkle had dismissed these claims even as he upheld the other legal grounds for challenging the voter law.

The reply briefs argue for racial and gender justice.

“Despite the district court’s ruling and the state’s efforts, plaintiffs resist the push to brand Florida as forever racist and sexist in its adoption of laws. However, that does not mean laws — especially voting restrictions — that unduly burden access to the ballot box for certain groups should go legally unchecked,” the brief argues.

“Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton presented ample evidence that women of color, particularly Black women, with criminal convictions face more difficulty than any other group in finding gainful employment. This means they often lack the financial means to meet their most basic needs, let alone pay thousands of dollars at once to vote. Plaintiffs meet every voting qualification except one — they are too broke to vote. Consequently, SB7066’s LFO requirement places a severe burden on plaintiffs’ access to the ballot as compared even to other people with felony convictions,” it continues.

“The state should not be allowed to implement a felony re-enfranchisement scheme that creates an illusory right to vote for a subset of its citizens. Plaintiffs, therefore, respectfully ask this court to reverse the district court’s dismissal of their Fourteenth Amendment and Nineteenth Amendment claims. In the alternative, they request the case be remanded with instructions that the district court conduct the appropriate factual and legal analysis.”