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’A game-changer’: Five takeaways from Sunday’s ruling on felon voting

The 125-page ruling covered a lot of ground and made national headlines, for several reasons. Here’s what you need to know.

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge’s ruling on felon voting in Florida was a bombshell.

The state can’t stop felons from voting if they’re too poor to pay back court-ordered fees, fines and restitution to victims, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in a ruling issued Sunday.

Related: Federal judge: Florida can't stop poor felons from voting

The 125-page ruling covered a lot of ground and made national headlines, for several reasons. When voters in 2018 approved Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to non-violent felons who had completed their sentences, it was the nation’s largest expansion of voting rights in decades. And the legal battle over the Legislature’s actions have become arguably the premier voting rights case in the nation.

Neil Volz, a spokesman for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which created Amendment 4 but was not a party to the lawsuit, called it “a game-changer."

Here are five takeaways from Hinkle’s decision:

1. It was big. But we don’t know yet how big.

Hinkle’s ruling just six months before the presidential election was a bombshell. He didn’t just strike down the idea that Florida can keep poor felons from voting. He also ruled that three large groups of felons are now eligible to vote (see item 2).

But this legal battle is far from over.

Nearly everyone is expecting Gov. Ron DeSantis to appeal the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. (He has not yet said what he will do.)

Although two of the 11th Circuit’s more liberal members have already sided on the case with Hinkle, who himself was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the court overall leans conservative. Plus, two of DeSantis hand-picked Florida Supreme Court justices are now on the bench there.

The court could could temporarily stop Hinkle’s order or overturn it entirely, and attorneys on both sides expect the case to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

2. Large groups of felons should now be eligible to vote.

Hinkle didn’t just strike down the idea that felons can’t be stopped from voting if they can’t afford to pay off court-ordered financial obligations. He also restored the right to vote outright to three large groups of felons:

  • Those who were appointed a public defender for their case, since you typically get a public defender after showing you can’t afford one on your own.
  • Those who had their financial obligations converted to civil liens.
  • Those who only owed court fees, which Hinkle ruled were a “tax in any other name.”

That’s a lot of people. How many is unclear. Supporters of Amendment 4 said it would affect more than 1 million felons. Testimony in the trial showed that most felons are appointed public defenders. Nearly all felons have their financial obligations converted to civil liens.

How the state and elections supervisors implement Hinkle’s orders remains to be seen, however.

3. It could affect how other states handle felon voting.

Many states require felons to pay back all court fees, fines and restitution to victims before voting.

What makes Florida’s case unique is that when the state, through Amendment 4 and lawmakers who restricted the ballot measure, decided to restore the right to vote to felons, they did so unevenly. That meant they created a process that automatically stopped some felons from voting, but only those who couldn’t afford to pay those costs.

Those other states have been closely following Florida’s lawsuit. In March, 10 of those states, including Texas, Georgia and Alabama, wrote a friend-of-the-court brief to the 11th Circuit in March siding with Florida.

Lawyers for those states wrote that if DeSantis loses his case, it could cause states to stop allowing felons to vote altogether. They noted that federal courts have ruled that states “are not required to allow any convicted felons to vote — ever.”

And if the courts rule that states have to create processes to evaluate whether felons are too poor to pay their court-ordered obligations, states might simply go backwards and eliminate all paths for felons to restore their right to vote, they wrote.

On the other hand, Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond School of Law, said Sunday night that Hinkle’s ruling may help people who want to challenge their own state’s felon-voting laws.

4. Hinkle did not find that the Legislature’s action discriminated on the basis of race.

The criminal justice system disproportionately affects black Americans. And lawyers representing a dozen felons suing the state argued that Senate Bill 7066, which DeSantis signed requiring felons pay court-ordered costs before voting, was racially motivated.

They cited analysis by University of Florida professor Dan Smith that showed black felons had a higher rate of outstanding legal obligations than white felons did.

And they noted that Senate Bill 7066 passed on a party-line vote, inferring that Republican lawmakers were motivated to suppress Democratic vote turnout because black Americans disproportionately vote for Democrats.

Hinkle disagreed.

“On balance, I find that SB 7066 was not motivated by race,” Hinkle wrote.

That was a disappointment to the NAACP, which is one of the parties to the lawsuit.

“Indeed, SB 7066’s requirements are particularly harmful to black (felons), who often enter into the criminal system impoverished and, when they come out, endure collateral consequences that make it difficult to gain jobs and housing with a felony conviction,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a statement on Sunday.

5. Hinkle blasted Florida officials, including the state’s top elections chief.

Hinkle had harsh words — in legal terms — for Florida lawmakers and officials.

He noted that the House sponsor of Senate Bill 7066, Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, “emphatically said during legislative debate that the bill was simply a faithful implementation of Amendment 4 — in effect, ‘nothing to see here.’”

“This is not true,” Hinkle wrote.

He said the new voter registration form lawmakers adopted was “objectionable at several levels" and served no purpose “other than perhaps to discourage felons from registering."

And he was highly critical of state elections officials, writing that they still have not created a process for evaluating how much in court-ordered costs a felon owes. And what little they have done makes no sense.

“In 18 months since Amendment 4 was adopted, the State has done almost nothing to address the problem — nothing, that is, except to jettison the most logical method for determining whether the required amount has been paid and substituting a bizarre method that no prospective voter would anticipate and that doesn’t solve the problem," he wrote.