Federal court ruling breathes new life into Amendment 4
The injustice can’t be much plainer than this:
“The state of Florida has adopted a system under which nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money. Most of the citizens lack the financial resources to make the required payment. Many do not know, and some will not be able to find out, how much they must pay. For most, the required payment will consist only of charges the state imposed to fund government operations — a tax in substance though not by name.”
These are the opening words of the 125-page ruling issued Sunday by U.S. District Senior Judge Robert Hinkle. In the inspiring tradition of federal courts upholding voting rights when states would not, Hinkle struck down most of the Republican-led law that has gutted Amendment 4 — the historic 2018 referendum meant to end the systemic, usually lifelong disenfranchisement of most people convicted of felonies in Florida.
With his bombshell ruling, Hinkle has opened the door for hundreds of thousands of felons who’ve served their sentences to register to vote before November. And he restored to Florida voters the good deed they intended in restoring voting rights to felons who’ve served their time (excluding murderers and felony sex offenders).
These are the results, that is, unless Gov. Ron DeSantis follows through on his statement that he intends to appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which could temporarily halt Hinkle’s order or overturn it entirely.
Our own appeal to DeSantis: Stop.
As we’ve noted before, the governor already has tried — twice — to get the higher court to overturn Hinkle. And failed. Twice. To continue to wield the power of the state to undermine the will of the electorate is grotesque. It is putting the political strategy of narrowing the electorate — that staple of the GOP playbook — ahead of the general interest of expanding our democracy.
To review: Florida voters approved Amendment 4 by an almost two-thirds majority, thinking they were putting an end to a crude barrier to voting that dated to the Jim Crow segregationist past. But GOP lawmakers devised, DeSantis signed and the attorney general has fiercely defended a 2019 law requiring that felons pay all fines, restitution and court costs before they can regain the voting rights that Amendment 4 had seemingly made automatic.
As early as October, Hinkle, a 1996 appointee of President Bill Clinton, ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny voting rights to felons who are “genuinely unable to pay.”
He went much further in his ruling on Sunday, which comes less than a month after an eight-day trial held by teleconference, in deference to the coronavirus.
Hinkle says now that Florida’s system for determining how much a felon owes in legal financial obligations is wholly inadequate: The state is on pace to “complete its initial screening of the citizens by 2026, or perhaps later.” Taking matters into his own hands, Hinkle ordered that the state adopt a new process that requires a felon to learn his status within 21 days of a request being received.
Hinkle said it is clear from the record that “the overwhelming majority” of people covered by Amendment 4 are indeed unable to pay. That includes the many who had public defenders at their trials; by definition, they’re too poor to afford a lawyer.
For those with public defenders, Hinkle restored their right to vote outright. He did the same for felons who had their financial obligations converted to civil liens. And for those whose only debt is the fee to support the cost of courts — what he called the “tax in substance but not name.”
At a stroke, in other words, Hinkle blew new life into Amendment 4’s promise of automatic voting eligibility for many thousands.
Under Hinkle’s ruling, the state can still deny voting rights to ex-felons who can afford to pay their obligations. It can still require them to pay fines meant as a criminal penalty (such as a drug dealer ordered to pay $50,000) or to pay restitution (money paid to a crime victim). But it’s unconstitutional to require the payment of restitution if the amount is unknown, which is often the case.
Hinkle is unsparing in his denunciation of a law that is so plainly wrong. DeSantis can only further dishonor this state -- and waste more of taxpayers’ money -- if he keeps looking for a court to prop up this unconstitutional mess. Unfortunately, given the realities of Florida’s importance in the 2020 presidential election, he is likely to do just that.
We can only hope that the federal courts, despite their growing conservative makeup, will hold fast to their essential role as the ultimate protector of voting rights.
This guest editorial was originally published by the Palm Beach Post.