A federal appeals court has upheld a law denying voting rights to former felons in Florida if they have not paid off their court fees, even if they cannot afford to.
Opponents of the law argue it creates a “pay to vote” system akin to the poll taxes outlawed in the 24th constitutional amendment. But in a 6-4 decision, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit found that the requirement is not a tax and is constitutional.
Like in many states, felons are not able to vote in Florida, which is considered a crucial swing state in the upcoming 2020 election.
But in 2018, the people of Florida voted in a referendum to amend the state constitution and restore voting rights to former felons. Since then at least 85,000 people have applied to have their voting rights reinstated. Advocates say the total number of people whose rights are affected by the case is about 750,000.
In May 2019, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 7066. The legislation only restores voting rights to former felons who complete all “terms of service,” which are defined to include paying off all financial obligations. These obligations include court fees, fines, and restitution orders that can run into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Some applicants then sued. They won an initial victory when a district court issued a preliminary injunction. On Friday, the 11th Circuit overruled that decision.
In Florida, there are virtually no exemptions for people unable to pay court fees. Even hiring a public defender, a constitutionally-required service set aside for people without means, comes with a $50 application fee. In one county, the fees for each defendant who is represented by a public defender total at least $700.
The district court found that the “overwhelming majority” of felons who have not paid off their fees but are otherwise eligible to vote “are genuinely unable to pay the required amount.” The state did not refute this finding.
Writing in dissent, Judge Jill Pryor accused the legislature of crafting a bill that would maximally undercut the will of voters. “In short, the legislators knew — or deliberately shut their eyes to — both the extent of the financial obligations Florida courts impose and the fact that most people convicted of felonies in Florida genuinely cannot afford to pay these obligations,” she wrote.
The majority opinion, authored by Chief Judge William Pryor, found the Florida law did not violate the 24th Amendment because repayment of fees does not amount to a tax on voting.
“This classification does not turn on membership in a suspect class: the requirement that felons complete their sentences applies regardless of race, religion, or national origin,” the majority wrote.
The majority argued the repayment requirements do not make affluence an electoral standard, but rather apply a different standard: “To regain the right to vote, felons, rich and poor, must complete all terms of their criminal sentences.”
Two Trump appointees refused calls to recuse themselves from the case. That ended up being the difference, as they argued for upholding the law in the 6-4 split decision.
The Campaign Legal Center vowed to fight the decision but acknowledged it likely means many former felons will not be able to vote in the November election.
“We will continue this fight for all Florida voters, so the full benefits of (the referendum) will someday be realized,” said CLC vice president Paul Smith. “Nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”
More Than A Vote, an organization founded by LeBron James and other Black athletes, announced in July it would raise $100,000 to help pay off outstanding court fines and fees in partnership with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, in order to help people restore their voting rights.