Can 'rocket dockets' restore voting rights? Hillsborough says yes. Pinellas says no.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe (left) and Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren (right). [Times files]
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe (left) and Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren (right). [Times files]
Published July 1, 2019

TAMPA — In 2018, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that automatically restored voting rights to felons who have completed their time spent in prison or on probation. Then in the spring, the Legislature limited who benefits from Amendment 4, saying only those who no longer owe court fines and fees can get the back their right to vote.

One of the only ways around that is for felons to ask a judge to waive those costs, or convert them to community service hours.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren wants to make that happen en masse.

His office is exploring the possibility of having judges waive court costs in favor of community service for a large number of cases. The idea is to create a "rocket docket," or special court that could eliminate the debts that hundreds or thousands of defendants owe to the criminal justice system, speeding up the process for those who want to regain their right to vote.

"Our goal is to fulfill the promise of Amendment 4," Warren told the Tampa Bay Times. "The focus is on people with lower level crimes who have paid their debt to society."

THE BUZZ: What now? Amendment 4, felon voting move to Florida courts

The plan is far from final. Hurdles include identifying who might be eligible, an arduous task that involves combing through thousands of court records and massive databases.

But Hillsborough leaders are open to the idea. Warren brought it up last month in a meeting organized by County Commissioner Les Miller, and one of the attendees was Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta. Both support the idea, but said the details need to ironed out.

"I think they're going to need to come up with a way of identifying the individuals and then we can sit down and talk," Ficarrotta said. "We're in the very early stages of it."

"Everyone kind of agreed that we needed to work together to implement a program of some type," Miller said. "It's not going to happen overnight. ... It's unfortunate that the public wanted one thing and the Legislature put something else in place."

The Buzz: Ron DeSantis signs Amendment 4 bill, limiting felon voting

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the controversial bill Friday, which limits how many felons will be able to vote. Critics say the law amounts to a "poll tax," comparing it to racist laws enacted starting in the 1890s that kept blacks and some poor whites from voting. They say Florida voters passed Amendment 4 — restoring voting rights to felons, except those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses — to finally overturn such laws.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups quickly sued to block the new law, arguing on behalf of several felons who registered to vote after the amendment passed but lost that right again under the new law.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe opposes the rocket docket idea. He said the law implements Amendment 4 just as its supporters had described it in the lead up to the 2018 election.

"I thought what they've got now is what they advertised," McCabe said.

He pointed out that during 2017 oral arguments on Amendment 4 before the Florida Supreme Court, Justice Ricky Polston asked whether the completion of a sentence would include the payment of fines. Attorney Jon Mills, who argued in favor of the amendment's placement on the ballot, said the answer was yes.

But those who advocated for Amendment 4 say the text of the measure speaks for itself, and needed no fine-tuning from the Legislature.

Many argue that outstanding court debts should not be used to keep someone from voting.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger is among them.

"I think it's manifestly unfair and it's not what the voters wanted," Dillinger said of the new law.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Amendment 4 will likely cost 'millions' to carry out. Here's why.

The rocket docket concept has generated buzz throughout the Sunshine State. The office of Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg said Monday it's also exploring the idea.

But it's still unclear when those courts could start, or what the process would look like.

"It may be multiple rocket dockets depending on what the universe of cases is," Warren said.

The task of determining who may be eligible could fall on local officials, such as the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court.

But the office don't have an easy way to determine exactly how many defendants are in debt. Figuring it out involves pulling data from thousands of records.

A spreadsheet provided by the clerk's office underscores the enormity of the task. The sheet details amounts owed by all defendants whose last names start with the letter J. It lists more than 66,000 individual criminal cases.

"Some defendants owe hundreds of thousands and some owe a couple hundred," said Tom Scherberger, a spokesman for Hillsborough Clerk Pat Frank.

Some also owe money over multiple cases, Scherberger said.

The challenge gets more complicated with older cases, he said, for which outstanding court cost data may not be readily available in a database.

Most of the time, the debts don't get paid.

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The clerk's data shows that from 2007 to 2017 the clerk's office assessed more than $503 million that was owed to the court system. Of that total, only about $15 million — or less than 3 percent — was collected.

The debts that do get paid go toward funding local court systems.

"There is a fair amount of nuance to this," Warren said. "We want to make sure we're doing this the right way and following the law."

Contact Dan Sullivan at Follow @TimesDan.