It’s time for the federal courts to stop indulging Florida for its stubborn refusal to automatically grant felons the voting rights they won overwhelmingly in 2018. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle sent another important signal Wednesday in advance of a federal trial in the voting rights case later this month. If anything, the games Florida has been playing, and the bad faith it has shown in carrying out the court’s clear, measured guidance, demonstrate the need for strong federal action.
The federal judge overseeing the case has already delivered an ultimatum to attorneys representing Gov. Ron DeSantis in a lawsuit that challenges a state law implementing the 2018 felon voting rights amendment. The 2019 law requires felons to pay all outstanding legal obligations associated with their case before being allowed to register - an impossible hurdle for many that perpetuates century-old discrimination. Hinkle ruled in October that it was unconstitutional to deny felons the right to vote merely because of their inability to pay outstanding debts tied to their case. And he recently warned the state’s attorneys to be prepared to create a process for determining whether felons had paid their obligations - the first step in clearing up the chaos lawmakers created in 2019. And "if the state is not going to fix it,” the judge warned during a recent hearing, “I will.”
The judge’s frustration is amply warranted. In February, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta upheld Hinkle’s ruling, holding that it was "undeniable” that the requirement punished poor felons. The appeals court affirmed an injunction that Hinkle imposed barring the state from preventing the 17 felons who brought the case from registering as they wait for a trial scheduled to begin April 27. The appellate court also denied the governor’s request for a rehearing before the entire 11th Circuit. Not a single judge in active service on the court requested a rehearing.
Hinkle sent another important message Wednesday, ruling that whatever he decides at the end of trial will apply to all felons in Florida, not just the 17 who sued the state last year. That clears the way to provide justice to at least 430,000 felons who are believed to be unable to register because of outstanding obligations. The federal courts have chided Florida enough. And Hinkle has gone out of his way to give Florida the guidance and the time it hardly needed anyway to fix the statute on its own - without further federal direction. He amplified that by warning the state recently: “You might want to change tack.” Felons should not have to wait another election cycle for a constitutional right that an overwhelming majority of Florida voters supported - and that the state has no obvious intention to honor. The essential feature of a democracy, after all, is the right to participate. The federal courts should continue to make that crystal clear.
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