The case stems from a state constitutional amendment approved by Florida voters in 2018 that restored voting rights to approximately 1.4 million felons who completed the terms of their sentences. Florida’s majority-Republican legislature then passed a measure requiring felons to pay all of their “legal financial obligations,” such as court fines and fees, before they qualified to vote.
“The State has chosen to continue to punish those felons who are genuinely unable to pay fees, fines, and restitution on account of their indigency, while re-enfranchising all other similarly situated felons who can afford to pay,” the judges wrote in their opinion.
“Continued disenfranchisement is indisputably punitive in nature,” the judges wrote, adding, “Felons who are unable to pay are subject to continued punishment solely because of their inability to pay.”
The ruling on the law, which some advocates have compared to a poll tax, was a victory for Democrats and civil rights groups in one of this year’s most closely watched legal battles on voting issues. For Florida — a pivotal battleground in the presidential election — any court decisions that expand access to the ballot box will have political consequences when voters go to the polls in November.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs welcomed the appeals court’s decision while urging state officials to take steps to allow indigent ex-felons to join the voting population this year.
Florida’s presidential primary will take place March 17, and while the 17 plaintiffs involved in the suit will be eligible to cast ballots, other ex-felons with the same financial status will not.
“The preliminary injunction applies to our plaintiffs alone,” Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in an interview. “But I hope the state and the counties will take note that the Constitution prohibits the state from disenfranchising somebody for being poor and unable to pay.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) indicated Wednesday that he plans to appeal Wednesday’s ruling to the full 11th Circuit, which covers Florida, Alabama and Georgia and is considered one of the most conservative of the regional appeals courts.
“We disagree with the ruling,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré wrote in an email. “We are going to seek en banc review by the full court.”
The three judges who issued Wednesday’s decision were nominated to their current positions by Democrats but are not considered overwhelmingly liberal.
A two-week trial on the plaintiffs’ other claims is scheduled to begin April 6 before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, which issued the preliminary injunction.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ordered the state to come up with a system by which ex-felons could prove they are indigent and unable to comply with the law’s requirements for voting.
“Florida cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution,” he wrote.
The state appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit, prompting Wednesday’s ruling.
In its opinion, the three-judge panel said the requirement to pay outstanding “LFOs,” or legal financial obligations, before regaining the right to vote was “irrational” when applied to indigent ex-felons.
“It is undeniable that the LFO requirement punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can,” the judges wrote. “Denying access to the franchise to those genuinely unable to pay solely on account of wealth does not survive heightened scrutiny.”
Ebenstein called the decision “very exciting for our clients,” noting that some were never eligible to vote until now.
The ACLU represented plaintiffs alongside other groups, including the Campaign Legal Center, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
“It’s really encouraging as far as the court’s recognition that wealth is not germane to voting — that somebody’s eligibility to vote cannot be dependent on how much money they have,” Ebenstein said.
Robert Barnes contributed to this report.