The Supreme Court dealt a blow to many ex-felons in Florida on Thursday.
In a surprise to many, the nation’s highest court decided to allow the state to enforce a law that bars ex-felons from voting if they still owe court fees or fines.
Thursday’s action denied a request to lift the order of lower court rulings. Liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissented.
“This Court’s order prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor,” Sotomayor wrote in the dissent.
She added, “This Court’s inaction continues a trend of condoning (disenfranchisement).”
Nearly 1.4 million Floridians with previous felony convictions had their voting rights restored through a constitutional amendment passed in November 2018. Amendment 4, which allowed convicted felons who complete “all terms of sentence” the right to vote, passed with about 65 percent of the vote, exceeding the 60 percent threshold required.
After Amendment 4 went into effect last year, the Florida legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, a bill that clarified “all terms of sentence” to include legal financial obligations including fines, fees and restitution.
The fees and fines that felons are ordered to pay range from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, according to Lisa Foster, the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a group that aims to eliminate fees in the US justice system.
Breaking: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear Florida’s felon voting case en banc (meaning the whole court).
It also stayed the district court’s ruling, so Florida’s law requiring felons to serve their full sentences before voting remains in effect.
— Honest Elections Project (@honestelections) July 1, 2020
In Florida, all court charges that go unpaid after 90 days are referred to private debt collectors, who are allowed to add up to a 40 percent surcharge on the unpaid court debt, according to the Brennan Center.
In response, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with the Campaign Legal Center and other voting rights groups, filed an application last week asking the Supreme Court for an order that would have overturned the appeals court decision.
Lawyers for DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, also a Republican, argued against the petition, saying that Floridians will be “irreparably harmed” if the district court’s “patently erroneous injunction is reinstated, enabling hundreds of thousands of ineligible voters to take part in the upcoming elections, one of which is only a month away.”
Thursday’s decision from the Supreme Court came just days before the voter registration deadline in Florida.
The state’s primary election is scheduled for August 18 and voters must register by July 20.