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Hillsborough ‘rocket docket’ affirms the vote for some, not others

A judge decided Tuesday there was nothing to stop seven felons who still owed court costs from registering to vote.

TAMPA — It had been called a rocket docket, a “voting rights docket.” But when it finally happened in a Tampa courtroom Tuesday afternoon, it may have been best described as a covered wagon docket.

The cases were those of 10 people, ex-felons all, who wanted to exercise their right to vote. The only thing preventing it was the court debts they still owed, but claimed they were unable to pay.

The Hillsborough State Attorney and Public Defender’s Offices had filed documents and financial affidavits on their behalf, asking a judge to relieve the 10 of their financial obligations and allow them to vote. But what may have been intended as a mass restoration of voting rights, instead was a meticulous examination of each defendant’s finances.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Catherine Catlin refused to nix the debts of two people who still owed fines and whose financial papers indicated they could afford to pay them off. For another seven people — who owed court fees and costs, but not fines — the judge said they’d still owe the debt, but made an order saying there was no reason they couldn’t register to vote. One man did not show up in court.

“It’s not supposed to be a rubber stamp,” State Attorney Andrew Warren said afterward. “It’s meant to be a process to identify the people that truly can’t pay.”

But having an order from a judge affirming the right to vote was a welcome blessing for at least one man on Tuesday’s docket.

“If you only knew how good I feel right now,” said Eugene Williams, who couldn’t stop smiling after the hearing was over. “I’m so happy.”

Williams, 44, admits he made mistakes as a younger man. He did 18 years in state prison for grand theft, assault and attempted robbery, among other convictions. Since 2011, he’s been free, but told the judge he has had a hard time finding and keeping a job because of his past.

He still owed the court close to $2,000 in fees, but without steady income, he can’t afford it. Because of that, the judge said, he genuinely did not have the ability to pay. She said there was no reason he couldn’t now register to vote.

“Voting is a privilege,” Williams said. "Once you lose that, you lose everything.”

This all happened because of Amendment 4, a revision to the state Constitution approved by 65 percent of Florida voters in 2018. The amendment restored the right to vote for most felons who had completed their sentences. But controversy arose over whether that meant they had to have paid off all court fines and fees.

Activists said they didn’t.

The Legislature said they did. They passed a law in 2019 that said as much.

That spawned a federal lawsuit. Last week, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that the state can’t stop felons from voting because they’re too poor to pay.

But the issue isn’t settled. It’s expected the judge’s ruling will be appealed.

Until it is settled, local officials want to ensure that felons who have completed their sentences won’t have their right to vote questioned.

Months ago, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren floated the idea of making a “rocket docket” to speed up the process of making felons eligible to vote. The idea was to have those who owed more than they could pay in court fees appear before a single judge who could then grant a mass waiver of the outstanding debt.

But part of the challenge was identifying which felons would be eligible and how much they owed.

Warren’s office estimated that as many as 116,000 Hillsborough residents may be eligible to have their voting rights restored. Statewide, it’s estimated that 1.7 million people are unable to vote due to a felony conviction.

Allen D. Shephard is one them. His was the first case called Tuesday.

It’s been more than 16 years since he was last in trouble. His convictions were related to drugs and theft.

Now 61, he’s married, has a big family, and ministers to the incarcerated as a pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Mulberry.

But in one way, the state of Florida is still punishing him. He still owes more than $8,000 in court costs that include a fine.

He told the Tampa Bay Times he didn’t know about the debt until recently.

“It felt like double jeopardy,” Shephard said. “I did my time. I did what I was supposed to do and all that was behind me. And now you’re still holding something in the past to make decisions now."

Standing at a lectern before the judge, he said he couldn’t pay. But the judge, reviewing his financial affidavit, noted a monthly surplus of $900. She denied his request.