A federal judge ruled Sunday that the Florida law requiring felons to pay legal fees as part of their sentences before regaining the vote is unconstitutional for those unable to pay, or unable to find out how much they owe.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee issued a 125-page ruling around the state law to implement a 2016 ballot measure approved by voters to automatically restore the right to vote for many felons who have completed their sentences. The Republican-led Legislature stipulated that fines and legal fees must be paid as part of the sentence.
Hinkle said it’s unconstitutional to bar any voter whose amount owed could not be “determined with diligence.”
He ordered the state to require election officials to allow felons to request an advisory opinion on how much they owe — essentially placing the burden on elections officials to seek that information from court systems. If there’s no response within three weeks, then the applicant should not be barred from registering to vote, the ruling said.
Some reports estimate 774,000 felons are barred from voting again until the financial obligations have been met. The 2018 ballot measure, known as Amendment 4, does not apply to convicted murderers and rapists, who are permanently barred from voting regardless of financial obligations.
Hinkle noted that an appeal from the Gov. Ron DeSantis administration should be expected.
Kelvin Jones vs. Ron DeSantis, consolidates five lawsuits filed by advocates of disenfranchised felons, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“This is a tremendous victory for voting rights,” Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “The court recognized that conditioning a person’s right to vote on their ability to pay is unconstitutional. This ruling means hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to rejoin the electorate and participate in upcoming elections.”