U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court leaves stay in place that hampers voting by Florida ex-felons

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A federal judge's ruling that had expanded the number of felons in Florida who may vote remains on hold following the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to intervene on Thursday.

The Supreme Court denied a request by civil rights and voting rights groups to vacate a stay of the May ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

The May ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle held it is an equal protection violation to require felons who have completed their sentences to pay legal fees and fines before being allowed to vote, if the felons can’t afford to pay. Requiring the payments is also an unconstitutional tax if they were imposed to fund the criminal justice system, Hinkle said.

As a remedy, Hinkle in effect created a rebuttable presumption that a would-be voter is unable to pay if he or she had an appointed lawyer or was granted indigent status in the case that resulted in a felony conviction.

The Florida Legislature had imposed the fines and fees requirement after Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to many felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” Felons convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses were not eligible for restoration of voting rights.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had stayed Hinkle’s ruling pending an en banc appeal.

Sotomayor said the Supreme Court’s refusal to vacate the stay “prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor.”

Sotomayor said the Supreme Court was inconsistent in its application of the 2006 decision Purcell v. Gonzalez, which discouraged court decisions changing the voting status quo close to an election.

Sotomayor said the Supreme Court recently “wielded Purcell as a reason to forbid courts to make voting safer during a pandemic, overriding two federal courts because any safety-related changes supposedly came too close to election day.”

“Now, faced with an appellate court stay that disrupts a legal status quo and risks immense disfranchisement—a situation that Purcell sought to avoid—the court balks.”

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which spearheaded the effort to pass Amendment 4, released a statement on the Supreme Court’s decision. “We are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision but not deterred,” said executive director Desmond Meade. “Where others see obstacles, we see opportunities.”

The group is holding a fundraising campaign to cover the estimated $3 million in outstanding court fines and fees that block potentially eligible voters from voting.

The Washington Post, the New York Times and SCOTUSblog had coverage of the Supreme Court’s refusal to intervene.

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