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Court Speeds Up Voting Rights Appeal

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Alex Fahnlander
/
WFSU News

A federal appellate court has agreed to fast track the state’s appeal of a ruling that paved the way for hundreds of thousands of Florida felons to register and vote in the November elections. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday granted Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request to expedite the appeal. The Atlanta-based court also scheduled oral arguments in the case during the week of Aug. 10.

DeSantis’ lawyers are appealing a May ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in a battle over a 2019 law that was aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of felons “who have completed all terms of their sentences, including parole and probation.”

In addition to asking the 11th Circuit to expedite the case, lawyers for the governor on June 2 made a rare move of asking the full court to hear the appeal. Appeals in federal lawsuits are almost always initially heard by three-judge panels, whose decisions can be revisited later by the full court in what are known as “en banc” hearings. But the state asked the 11th Circuit for an initial hearing by the full court, due in part to a panel decision earlier in the case and because of the far-reaching nature of the lawsuit.

Thursday’s order agreeing to expedite the appeal did not address the en banc request. Hinkle’s ruling last month came after he issued a preliminary-injunction decision in October that said part of the 2019 law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” --- fees, fines, costs and restitution --- associated with their convictions was unconstitutional. A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court in February upheld the preliminary-injunction decision, which found that the state cannot deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable” to pay court-ordered financial obligations.

DeSantis requested an en banc rehearing on that decision, but the appeals court turned him down. In the May 24 ruling, Hinkle cemented his earlier decision by laying out a procedure for hundreds of thousands of Floridians who have been convicted of felonies and have court-ordered debts to be able to cast ballots in November. The process Hinkle crafted would allow the vast majority of convicted felons in Florida who have served their time in prison or jail, excluding murderers or felony sexual offenders, to gain access to the polls by simply registering to vote.