Criminal Justice

Felons in Florida must pay all fees and fines before they can vote, state's top court says

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Felons in Florida have to pay fees, fines and restitution before their voting rights are restored, according to a Florida Supreme Court advisory opinion.

The opinion interpreted a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2018. The measure, known as Amendment 4, restored voting rights for felons, with the exception of those convicted of murder and sexual felonies.

The court issued the decision Thursday in response to a request by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

At issue was the meaning of an Amendment 4 provision that authorizes restoration of voting rights “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”

DeSantis had argued that the law required payment of all legal financial obligations, including fees, fines, restitution and costs. The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the governor.

The court noted that the group sponsoring Amendment 4 had previously told the Florida Supreme Court that the phrase required payment of fees and costs. The group made the assertion in a prior court proceeding that considered whether the measure met ballot requirements.

But the court said it was basing its decision on the ordinary meaning of the phrase, rather than the intent of the sponsor. Law360 and the Associated Press have coverage of the opinion.

Florida lawmakers agreed that felons should pay fees and fines in order to vote in a bill signed by the governor last June. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law immediately filed a constitutional challenge.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction in the group’s case in October, ruling that people cannot be denied the right to vote if they are unable to pay financial obligations.

In a joint statement issued Thursday, the groups said the advisory opinion doesn’t affect the ongoing federal litigation.

“The Florida Supreme Court’s advisory opinion does not—indeed, cannot—alter what the U.S. Constitution requires. A federal court has already held that the state cannot deny people the right to vote because of their inability to pay financial obligations,” the statement said.

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