State Watch

Florida Supreme Court rules convicted felons must pay fines, fees before voting

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Florida’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that convicted felons must pay fines and other fees related to their sentences before voting, concluding a legal controversy that pitted the state government against voting rights advocacy groups.

The court decided in its ruling that “all terms of sentence” includes not only terms of a person’s imprisonment and supervision, but also fines and other obligations imposed as part of a punishment.

“We conclude that ‘all terms of sentence’ plainly encompasses not only durational terms, but also obligations and therefore includes all [legal financial obligations (LFOs)] imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt,” the ruling reads. “As explained next, we reject as overly technical the arguments advanced by certain Non-State Parties that Amendment 4 encompasses only some LFOs.”

The amendment to the Florida constitution that allows 1.4 million convicted felons to vote following their release from incarceration was lauded by civil rights advocates after its passage in November, with the advocates noting that people of color had been disproportionately impacted by the ban. 

However, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill in June mandating that the former convicts pay off restitution, court fees and fines before regaining the right to vote, sparking criticism from opponents who said the law amounted to a poll tax.

Several groups, including the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Orange County Branch of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of Florida, sued the state government following the bill’s signing. 

The Florida Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the fines and other fees should not be considered, saying they “isolate and parse the word ‘sentence’ to carve out” certain legal financial obligations. 

“Absent any suggestion in the context of Amendment 4 that the word ‘sentence’ carries a technical meaning restricting its scope, there is no basis to conclude that ‘all terms of sentence’ excludes any LFOs ordered by the sentencing judge,” it added. 

DeSantis praised the ruling, saying it will allow the amendment to be properly enforced. 

“I am pleased that @FLCourts confirms that Amendment 4 requires fines, fees & restitution be paid to victims before their voting rights may be restored. Voting is a privilege that should not be taken lightly, and I am obligated to faithfully implement Amendment 4 as it is defined,” he tweeted. 

Meanwhile, civil rights groups panned the decision, saying the movement that led to the amendment in the first place will continue its work to expand access to the ballot box. 

“The Florida Supreme Court’s decision is disappointing and cuts the 1.4 million people who voters expressly intended to re-enfranchise almost in half,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said. “By holding Floridians’ right to vote hostage, the Florida Supreme Court is permitting the unconstitutional modern-day poll tax … and redefining an amendment nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved of in 2018.

“The movement that began to pass Amendment 4 was never going to go away after last year’s election,” the group continued, “but it is needed now more than ever to ensure everyone who is eligible to vote can register, and does so.”

Tags Felon voting rights Florida Florida Amendment 4 Ron DeSantis

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