A federal judge has issued a ruling that temporarily blocks a Republican-supported Florida law which had kept some felons from voting because of their inability to pay fines or other legal debts.
The ruling, made on Friday by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, means that thousands of felons who were previously denied the right to vote will now be able to cast ballots – that is, unless the state gets a higher court involved, or if Hinkle decides to uphold the law’s constitutionality.
The issue revolves around whether Florida lawmakers can require released felons to pay all outstanding fines, restitution and other legal debts before they have the right to vote restored under last year’s voter-approved Amendment 4.
Although Hinkle acknowledged the state’s authority to require payment of fines and other debts in order to complete criminal sentences, he says, “the last word will belong to the Florida Supreme Court.”
Both sides are expected to plead their case to Hinkle in April.
In his ruling, Hinkle explained that a felon’s inability to pay the fees raises constitutional questions, since about 80 percent of the state’s felons have unpaid financial obligations which are imposed by courts during sentencing.
Nearly 1.4 million felons who have completed their sentences had their voting privileges restored under last year’s constitutional amendment.
However, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill earlier this week, which Governor Ron DeSantis signed, requiring felons to pay all fines, restitution and other financial obligations to complete their sentences.
According to Helen Aguirre Ferre, DeSantis’ spokeswoman, “Today’s ruling affirms the governor’s consistent position that convicted felons should be held responsible for paying applicable restitution, fees and fines while also recognizing the need to provide an avenue for individuals unable to pay back their debts as a result of true financial hardship.”
She added that the Governor would consider options “on addressing a pathway for those who are indigent and unable to address their outstanding financial obligations.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law went to court earlier this month seeking the preliminary injunction.
Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, says, “The court held that the right to vote cannot be denied based on a person’s inability to pay fines and fees. This ruling recognizes the gravity of elected officials trying to circumvent Amendment 4 to create voting roadblocks based on wealth.”
Secretary of State Laurel Lee says her department is still reviewing the order, but will comply with the ruling while providing guidance to local elections officials.