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Federal judge expands ruling to include all Florida felons

The ruling dramatically raises the stakes of the case over Amendment 4, which is set to go to trial April 27.

TALLAHASSEE — When Florida’s lawsuit over felon voting rights goes to trial later this month, the stakes will be much larger.

At least 430,000 people larger.

In a Tuesday decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that whatever he decides at the end of the trial will apply to all felons in Florida, not just the 17 who sued the state last year.

The decision dramatically expands the impact of the upcoming trial over Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for felons. The historic amendment passed by voters in 2018 restored the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms of sentence.”

But a bill passed later by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis required felons to pay back all court-ordered fees, fines and restitution to victims before they could register.

Because of that bill, which became law last year, at least 430,000 felons are believed to be unable to register until they pay off their obligations, according to an estimate Hinkle cited. Some of them have sued in federal court, claiming the Legislature’s actions created a “poll tax.”

Hinkle’s decision was praised Wednesday by the creator of Amendment 4, who has chosen not to get involved in the lawsuit.

“This decision represents a major victory in the fight to restore voting rights to Florida’s returning citizens,” Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said in a statement. “We are pleased that the court appears to be consistent in placing people over politics, which is the approach we have maintained since the start of our Amendment 4 campaign.”

The case has become one of the nation’s most high-profile voting rights cases, and Tuesday’s ruling is the latest setback for DeSantis and the official he appointed to oversee Florida’s elections system, Secretary of State Laurel Lee. They are both defendants in the lawsuits over the 2019 law.

More than a dozen felons who could not afford to immediately pay back their obligations sued DeSantis, represented by groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Hinkle has already ruled multiple times in favor of the felons, an indication that he will ultimately side with them in the trial, which is set for April 27.

Hinkle ruled last year that it was unconstitutional for felons to be prevented from voting if they can’t pay back their financial obligations, and he ordered that the 17 plaintiffs should be allowed to vote.

When DeSantis appealed the injunction, Hinkle’s ruling was upheld by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. DeSantis asked for a follow-up ruling by the entire court. His lawyers and some lawmakers were expecting the court to grant the request, but that was denied as well.

The case was set to go to trial this week before the coronavirus delayed the case. Concerns over social distancing now have Hinkle considering holding the trial electronically, something state officials oppose.

During a hearing last week, Hinkle upbraided Florida officials for not creating any way to verify whether felons are too poor to vote. Such methods could be as simple as requiring felons to fill out a financial disclosure form, which is similar to what defendants do when requesting a public defender in a criminal case.

"If the state is not going to fix it, I will,” Hinkle warned Lee’s attorneys.