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DeSantis challenge to federal felon-vote lawsuit gets its day before Florida Supreme Court

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Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Republican lawmakers got their wish Wednesday when the Florida Supreme Court heard their challenges to a federal lawsuit filed against a 2019 law that requires felons to resolve court-ordered financial obligations – fines, fees, restitution – before their voting rights are restored.

DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee requested the state’s highest court offer a non-binding “advisory ruling” on the same case proceeding in U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle’s federal Tallahassee courtroom.

After November 2018’s nearly 65-percent approval of Amendment 4’s proposal to restore felons’ voting rights, DeSantis said the constitutional amendment required an “implementing” bill.

During the ensuing session, Republican lawmakers installed a requirement that felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote into Senate Bill 7066, claiming it was a concession amendment sponsors agreed to when it was reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court.

Although SB 7066 allows felons to petition a judge to waive fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours, opponents argue that including financial obligations, which for some can run into hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in restitution, is essentially a financial disqualification – “a poll tax” – for many felons who can often only find low-wage work.

Following contentious hearings and capital protests, SB 7066 was adopted by the Senate in a 22-17 vote and by the House in a 67-42 tally. Both votes were strictly partisan, with Democrats in opposition.

After DeSantis signed SB 7066, four lawsuits were filed claiming the bill violated the intent of the ballot measure approved by voters.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law are among those challenging the law on numerous fronts in a combined lawsuit that has been proceeding in Hinkle’s court since July.

In mid-October, Hinkle temporarily blocked SB 7066 from implementing the amendment, stating the inability to buy the right to vote raises federal constitutional issues and sharply rebuking lawmakers for creating a “logistical nightmare” by adopting the bill.

Hinkle has set the case for an April trial.

Hinkle denied DeSantis’s and Lee’s request to suspend federal proceedings until the state Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion on whether language on November’s ballot made it clear that felons would have voting rights restored only after they “complete all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation,” and those “terms” include financial obligations.

“‘All terms’ means all of the conditions that are in the sentencing order,” Governor’s Office attorney Joseph Jacquot told the court.

Opponents spearheaded by ACLU attorneys argued that most interpret “terms” as the duration of prison terms.

Amendment 4 “does not require repayment of all legal financial obligations, because doing so would mean that every person unable to pay is serving a life sentence,” ACLU lawyer Anton Marino said.

Of 1.4 million Florida felons eligible to vote under Amendment 4, the ACLU estimates only 20 percent – less than 300,000 – are eligible for restoration if they must first pay all court fines, fees and restitution.

Justices repeatedly referred to the fact that when the Supreme Court reviewed the amendment’s proposed language before it qualified for the 2018 ballot, supporters agreed resolving financial obligations was a predicate to restored voting rights.

“If I sentence you to five years in state prison, $5,000 of restitution, a $2,000 fine and court costs in the amount of $973, what are the conditions of that sentence?” Justice Alan Lawson asked Marino. “

Marino said conditions are different than terms, which would be time spent in prison and on probation.

“Are you suggesting that the trial court just ordered $5,000 of restitution to the victim, that that is not a term of sentence?” asked Justice Barbara Lagoa, likely to join the 11th Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta by December. “Because that would be new to me under Florida law.”

DeSantis sought the state Supreme Court advisory opinion for clarity on what constitutes “completion of a sentence’s terms.” Although the non-binding opinion would have no direct effect on the federal case, federal jurists can reference them when they bear on facts before them.

Justice Ricky Polston emphasized that the court’s purview is narrow and should stay that way. Rather than weighing the constitutionality of the law, the aim is to define what a “sentence” includes and how it is completed.

“Whether the whole thing goes, or whether pieces of it stay, all those things would yet to be sorted out down the road, but it’s not before us right now,” he said.