It is no surprise the most conservative Florida Supreme Court in decades has joined Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature in ignoring the voters’ clear intent to automatically restore the voting rights of most felons who have completed their sentences. This is what happens when one political party has an iron grip over all three branches of government. Even more concerning is how the court reached its opinion on Amendment 4 and what it could mean for other constitutional rights Floridians take for granted.
Amendment 4, approved by more than 64 percent of the voters in 2018, was intended to right a historic wrong that effectively disenfranchised felons in Florida since the 1800s. The constitutional amendment was expected to enable roughly 1.4 million felons to automatically regain their voting rights, but Republicans fear many of those felons would vote for Democrats and are trying to limit the amendment’s impact. Last week, the state Supreme Court agreed with the governor and state lawmakers that felons must pay every nickel they owe in fines, fees, court costs and restitution before their voting rights are restored. That would exclude hundreds of thousands of felons, although a separate federal lawsuit still could provide a path to the voting booth for those who demonstrate they cannot afford to pay.
Like the 2019 law signed by DeSantis, the Supreme Court took the most expansive view possible in defining the amendment’s reference to restoring voting rights ''upon completion of all terms of a sentence.'' Never mind what 5.1 million voters intended when they voted for the amendment. The justices never considered them.
In fact, the court ignored its own precedent that called for considering the intent of the voters when considering constitutional questions and interpreting provisions to best reflect that intent. Instead, this opinion adopts an unbending embrace of "textualism'' and cites the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who argued the courts should rigidly adhere to the narrow definition of the words -- at the expense of what framers of the constitution meant or voters intended. It is a pinched approach by conservatives who warn of activist judges and the creation of new rights, and it has enormous implications for Floridians.
What happens when this Florida Supreme Court gets the challenge to legislation likely to pass this year that would require minors to obtain parental consent for an abortion, when the court previously ruled that restriction violated the privacy amendment in the state Constitution? What happens when this Florida Supreme Court gets a challenge to the expanded private school tuition voucher program that became law last year, when the court previously ruled a similar voucher plan violated the state Constitution?
Those precedents are now in jeopardy with a new conservative court and its full-throated support of textualism. For the record, Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz set this dangerous path with the Amendment 4 majority opinion (two court seats are vacant, but you can bet DeSantis will fill them with like-minded conservatives). To his credit, Justice Jorge Labarga agreed with the outcome but disagreed with the strict new approach. In a thoughtful dissent, he wrote the court will no longer be able to give “due consideration'' to other factors such as the intent of the framers of constitutional amendments and the voters who approve them. Indeed, Labarga wrote he agreed with the other justices on the meaning of the Amendment 4 wording only because he also considered comments from the sponsors.
The Amendment 4 wording is not as clear and unambiguous as the governor, state legislators and the Florida Supreme Court contend. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in an October ruling there could be different ways of defining "all terms of sentence,'' although he said the Florida Supreme Court had the final say. But Hinkle wrote the state cannot deny the restoration of voting rights to felons solely because they cannot afford to pay what they owe. The Legislature has one more chance to create payment plans or other fixes before a federal trial in April.
The bottom line on the Florida Supreme Court’s pinched opinion on Amendment 4 and its full embrace of textualism: There is still hope for felons who want their voting rights automatically restored but cannot afford to pay their fines, fees, court costs and restitution. There is less hope for those relying on the Florida Constitution and this court to protect abortion rights, public education and other long-established values.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news