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Florida felons lose voting rights case in federal appeals court

The 6-4 decision virtually ensures that people with felony convictions who owe court costs will be locked out of the November election.

TALLAHASSEE — A federal appeals court on Friday overturned a judge’s ruling that people with felony convictions don’t have to pay off all court fees and fines before voting, dealing a setback to advocates for 2018′s Amendment 4.

In a 6-4 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs did not prove a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs included more than a dozen people with felony convictions who accused Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers of imposing a “poll tax” by requiring them to pay off all court-ordered costs relating to their felony convictions before voting.

“Because the felons failed to prove a violation of the Constitution, we reverse the judgment of the district court and vacate the challenged portions of its injunction,” Judge William Pryor wrote for the majority.

READ THE OPINION HERE

Former Florida Supreme Court justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck sided with the majority. Both were appointed to the Supreme Court by DeSantis before President Donald Trump elevated them to the 11th Circuit.

The six judges in the majority were appointed by either Trump or President George W. Bush. The four judges who dissented were appointed by either presidents Barack Obama or Bill Clinton.

The decision is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But it virtually guarantees that the estimated 800,000 people with felony convictions in Florida who owe fines, fees or restitution to victims will not be allowed to vote in the November election.

Related: Florida pays $1.7 million, so far, to defend felons voting law

The American Civil Liberties and other groups representing the 17 Floridians who sued DeSantis and one of his appointees, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, denounced the court’s decision.

“This decision is wrong and is completely contrary to the words and spirit of our Constitution,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Desmond Meade, who led the effort to pass Amendment 4 in 2018, called the decision “a blow to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of returning citizens across Florida.”

Approved by nearly two-thirds of Florida voters in 2018, Amendment 4 restored the right to vote to nearly all people with felony convictions who completed “all terms” of their sentence.

With an estimated 1.4 million people with felony convictions in the state, it was considered America’s greatest expansion of voting rights in decades — at least for a few months, until DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature weighed in.

They passed Senate Bill 7066 last year clarifying that “all terms” included all court fees, fines and restitution handed down as part of a sentence. Since an estimated 80 percent of people convicted of felonies still owe money on their cases, the law dramatically undercut the number of people eligible to vote.

More than a dozen people represented by the ACLU and other groups sued, alleging that lawmakers and DeSantis created a “poll tax" in violation of the 24th Amendment and that the state denied them due process because it’s often impossible for felons to find out how much they owe in court fees, fines and restitution. A federal judge in May agreed with them, and DeSantis appealed to the 11th Circuit.

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

In Friday’s decision, however, the majority of judges bluntly disagreed with the lower court’s decision.

They wrote that the Supreme Court’s 1966 decision Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections clearly established what constituted a “poll tax." The court in that case struck down Virginia’s $1.50 poll tax because it applied to everyone and bore “no relation” to voter qualifications. It was a “capricious or irrelevant factor” to vote.

Requiring people to pay court-related costs, however, is a voter qualification, Pryor wrote.

“Monetary provisions of a sentence are no less a part of the penalty that society imposes for a crime than terms of imprisonment,” Pryor wrote. “Indeed, some felons face substantial monetary penalties but little or no prison time.”

And they wrote that court fees are not a tax, even though they fund the criminal justice system and other government services.

“If a government exaction is a penalty, it is not a tax,” Pryor wrote, citing previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

And they dismissed the argument that Florida made it nearly impossible for some felons to find out whether they’re eligible to vote, since county court clerks often can’t tell them how much they owe.

Related: Lawmakers made Amendment 4 an ‘administrative nightmare,’ federal judge says

The dissent argued that court fees, such as the fee when awarded a public defender, are a tax, because their “primary purpose” is to raise revenue for government. The Supreme Court, Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote, has established that the “primary purpose” is “what matters.”

Jordan ended his dissent ominously.

“I doubt that today’s decision — which blesses Florida’s neutering of Amendment 4 — will be viewed as kindly by history,” he wrote.

Pryor, in a rare separate one-page concurring opinion to his own opinion, responded to Jordan’s comment about history.

“Our duty is not to reach the outcomes we think will please whomever comes to sit on the court of human history,” he wrote. “We must respect the political decisions made by the people of Florida and their officials within the bounds of our Supreme Law, regardless of whether we agree with those decisions.”

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