Federal appeals court rules against Florida's restriction on former felons from voting over fines

The judges rule the mandate violated 17 ex-felons' Fourteenth Amendment rights.

February 19, 2020, 2:05 PM

A federal appeals court upheld an injunction Wednesday that allowed a group of former Florida felons to vote without the state-imposed mandate to pay fees.

The three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for 11th Circuit in Atlanta ruled that Florida’s law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for 17 former felons who are currently suing Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials. In 2018, Florida voters approved a state constitutional amendment, Amendment 4, which would restore the voting rights of former felons who completed all terms of their sentences.

Last year, the governor signed a bill that mandated those former prisoners pay all “legally financial obligations”, or LFOs, before they could vote. The appellate judges ruled in their 78-page decision that the plaintiffs, one of whom owes around $50,000 in fines according to court documents, were punished too harshly by the law.

John Legend (2L), Desmond Meade (L), State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle (2R) and Public defender Carlos Martinez (R) sit during a special court hearing aimed at restoring the right to vote under Florida's amendment 4, Nov. 8, 2019, in Miami.
Zak Bennett/AFP via Getty Images

"Indeed, the wealthy identical felon, with identical culpability, has his punishment cease. But the felon with no reasoned prospect of being able to pay has his punishment continue solely due to the impossibility of meeting the State’s requirement, despite any bona fide efforts to do so," the judges wrote.

Wednesday’s decision on the injunction only applies to the 17 plaintiffs in the case, according to Nancy Abudu, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing two of the plaintiffs. Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for the governor, said he would appeal the decision on the injunction.

"We disagree with the ruling. We are going to seek en banc review by the full court,” she said in a statement.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gives remarks during the banquet program at the Federalist Society Sixth Annual Florida Chapters Conference held at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Jan. 31, 2020.
Octavio Jones/Tampa Bay Times via Zuma Wire via Newscom, FILE

Amendment 4 would affect over 1.4 million former Florida felons who completed their sentences, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The 17 plaintiffs’ trial contending the constitutionality of the LFO mandate is still pending in Florida and is slated to begin in April, Abudu said.

She said Wednesday's ruling by the 11th Circut helped their argument.

"We look forward to a trial in April to enter into the record additional evidence establishing the unconstitutionality of Florida lawmakers’ poll tax," she said in a statement.

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