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Appeals court stops judge’s order granting Florida felons right to vote

The decision is a setback for the hundreds of thousands of felons allowed to vote under a judge's ruling in May.

TALLAHASSEE — A federal appellate court has temporarily stopped a judge’s order that granted hundreds of thousands of felons the right to vote, the latest turn in Florida’s battle over felon voting rights.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in favor of state officials and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who asked the court to stop a ruling in May by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle. Hinkle ruled that DeSantis and Florida elections officials can’t keep felons from voting if they can’t afford to pay off all court fees, fines and restitution, finding that the requirement is unconstitutional.

The court’s order also states that the entire panel of 11th Circuit judges will hear the case, a rare decision that was requested by DeSantis. The panel, which is known as one of the more conservative appellate courts in the nation, includes two judges that DeSantis had first appointed to Florida’s Supreme Court.

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

The decision is a setback for the hundreds of thousands of felons who were granted the ability to vote under Hinkle’s order. A spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the state’s Division of Elections, did not respond to questions about the ruling.

Hinkle’s ruling in May over Amendment 4, passed by Florida voters in 2018, was sweeping. DeSantis and state lawmakers last year limited the historic amendment by requiring felons to pay all court-ordered financial obligations before being allowed to vote.

Hinkle struck that down. He ruled that court fees, which are tacked on to a felon’s sentence and subsidize the criminal justice system, amounted to a poll tax. He also ruled that if a felon can’t afford to pay court fines, such as Florida’s $50,000 fine for drug trafficking, or restitution to victims, it can’t stop them from registering to vote.

“This order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay,” Hinkle wrote.

His decision opened up a path for potentially hundreds of thousands of felons to register to vote, six months before the presidential election. He ruled that any felon poor enough to have been given a court-appointed attorney should be allowed to vote. And any felon who had their financial obligations converted to civil liens — which nearly always happens — must be allowed to vote as well, he ruled.

Hinkle also required the state to allow felons to fill out a form attesting that they can’t afford to pay. State officials were abiding by that requirement, but that, too, was struck down with the appellate court’s order. It’s unclear how felons are supposed to register.

A spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer, who is also president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, deferred comment to state officials about how the order will play out.

“The Division of Elections should be able to provide you with an answer regarding process,” spokeswoman Gerri Kramer wrote in an email. “As the litigation is ongoing, we cannot provide comment but will, of course, respect and abide by the final decision of the courts regarding this issue.”

Mark Gaber, director of litigation at Campaign Legal Center, which is representing several felons in their case against the state, said he expects the 11th Circuit appellate judges to hear the case and rule on it before November’s election.

“It would be quite remarkable to slow-roll it,” Gaber said. “I imagine the court will move quickly.”

Earlier this year, a smaller panel of 11th Circuit appellate judges sided with Hinkle in a separate decision on the case. Gaber said he was confident the larger panel would uphold Hinkle’s ruling.

“This is like a bedrock principle of constitutional law that you can’t hinge someone’s rights on whether they have money in their pocketbook, so I think at the end of the day, the court will see that,” he said.