Florida gov asks state court to resolve felony voting dispute
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has opened up a new front in the legal battle in Florida over voting rights for people with felony convictions. DeSantis is asking the state supreme court for an opinion on whether Amendment 4, passed by Florida voters in 2018, restores the vote for people with outstanding court-ordered fines and fees. DeSantis signed a law passed by the legislature saying no, but that law is being challenged in federal court.
Amendment 4 automatically restored the right to vote for people convicted of felonies, other than murder or sexual offenses, upon “completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” On June 28, 2019, DeSantis signed legislation (SB7066) that defines “completion of all terms of sentence” to include legal financial obligations (LFOs), including if a court has converted the LFOs to a civil lien. Supporters of SB7066 point to a previous hearing before the Florida Supreme Court—regarding whether Amendment 4 should be on the 2018 ballot—where the Amendment’s sponsors told the Justices that completion of sentence includes court-ordered fines and costs.
In federal court, individuals and supporters of Amendment 4 have brought several challenges to SB7066 as violating the U.S. constitution on a variety of grounds. One complaint argues that by disqualifying persons with outstanding LFOs, even if a person has no ability to pay and even if the court has converted an LFO to a civil lien, the law violates the Equal Protection and Due Process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. It also argues that the law burdens the fundamental right to vote, is an unconstitutional poll tax, infringes on free speech and association, and was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose.
UCLA law professor Beth Colgan recently published a survey of wealth-based penal disenfranchisement in the U.S. She argues that while this widespread practice has been upheld in the lower courts under rational basis review, properly considered as a form of punishment it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Request for Opinion
On August 8, DeSantis filed a four-page letter asking the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on the meaning of the amendment. “I will not infringe on the proper restoration of an individual’s right to vote under the Florida Constitution,” DeSantis states, asking the justices for “your interpretation of whether ‘completion of all terms of sentence’ encompasses financial obligations, such as fines, fees and restitution (‘legal financial obligations’ or ‘LFOs’) imposed by the court in the sentencing order.”