Florida Supreme Court Says Amendment Requires Fines To Be Paid Before Felons Vote. What's Next?

Jan 17, 2020

Credit Nick Evans / WFSU

The Florida Supreme Court agrees with Governor Ron DeSantis that fines, fees and restitution are part of all terms of a criminal’s sentence. The question stems from 2018’s constitutional Amendment 4. It restored the voting rights to certain convicted felons. But a state law accompanying the amendment has been embroiled in lawsuits and there's difference of opinions on how to move forward. 

DeSantis’s request and the Florida Supreme Court’s take came after federal Judge Robert Hinkle ruled felons who can’t afford to pay their fines, fees and restitution shouldn't be kept from voting. FSU Assistant Professor Michael Morley explains the difference of opinion on the opinions.

“The [Supreme Court's] advisory opinion simply said 'all terms of sentence' has to be taken at face value," said FSU Assistant Professor Michael Morely. He teaches constitutional law.  "Not just imprisonment or probation, but other terms, other penalties to which a person can be sentenced including fines, fees and restitution.”

Morely says what the Florida Supreme Court’s opinion does is help the federal courts understand what the amendment meant in the first place.

“The federal courts now will just focus on, 'given that we know what it means, given that we have to interpret all terms at face value,' is that constitutional? Does that raise constitutional issues?" 

Big Bend Voting Rights Project founder Bob Rackleff believes the governor should’ve sent a different question to the courts.

“The question he should’ve asked the court is, is it unconstitutional to require poor ex-felons to pay full cost that they cannot afford to pay before they can vote?" says Rackleff. He believes when the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals weigh in, they'll side with felons and agree that a state law requiring felons pay their fines, fees and restitution before they can register to vote will be struck down. 

“I’m optimistic that he will declare this law unconstitutiona and clear the way for indigent and individuals to not have to pay fully," Rackleff explains. 

Morley says that's one possible outcome. 

“So that three-judge court will determine whether or not the amendment's requirements can validly be applied to everyone, whether there has to be a carve out to exempt certain indigent felons from the amendment's reach, whether the amendment has to be completely struck down or whether it can’t be applied to anyone," he says.

For now, Rackleff says he is going to continue to register people to vote with a hope that he can get felons registered too.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in the case January 28th.