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  1. Opinion

The Florida governor's bold move on Amendment 4. Or is that against Amendment 4?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would like the Florida Supreme Court to opine on the Amendment 4 mess, please. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Aug. 13

Now here's an interesting maneuver in the high-stakes chess game of restoring voting rights to felons in Florida. Or not restoring them, depending on how this shakes out.

The governor just asked for the Florida Supreme Court's opinion on restrictions that lawmakers quickly added to Amendment 4, which was intended to automatically give the vote back to felons who had done their time. (I say restriction, they say clarification.) Either way, what the court does could say a lot about the future of voting rights in our state.

Nearly two-thirds of us said yes in November to a measure that could reinstate that right to more than a million Florida felons, except for those convicted of murder and sex crimes. But once it passed, Republican lawmakers got to work clarifying things, even though people at the polls seemed to get it just fine. They specified that a felony sentence is not complete, and therefore a felon not eligible to vote, until all fines, fees and restitution are paid in full. Gov. Ron DeSantis made this the law.

Except, as those familiar with the justice system can tell you, many who can't pay up and will never be able to pay up would be shut out. And just in time for the 2020 elections.

Lawsuits ensued. Last week, DeSantis sent off a letter to the Florida Supreme Court asking for an interpretation of whether "completion of all terms of sentence" means making good on all fines and fees.

Which might be a brilliant move, if you are on the side of curtailing who gets to vote, and also mindful that those with their rights restored could tend to vote Democrat.

Why brilliant? Because supporters of Amendment 4 might be vulnerable. As the governor helpfully pointed out in his letter to the justices, an Amendment 4 advocate speaking to the court back in 2017 was asked if "completion of all terms" included full payment of any fines. That advocate said yes, "all terms means all terms within the four corners."

Amendment 4 opponents have them there, and I don't know a judge (or justice) around who takes kindly to being told one thing and then something else.

Did I mention that DeSantis appointed three of the current justices soon after taking office?

A Supreme Court agreement with the clarification of Amendment 4 could mute some of the criticism Republicans have gotten for keeping Americans from being able to participate again. A nod from the high court might be persuasive in those pending lawsuits. Cutting out thousands — some say hundreds of thousands — who could have soon voted would just be icing on the cake.

Or perhaps the court will decline to opine.

But here's the thing.

Voters who said yes to Amendment 4 didn't vote specifically on paying off fees and costs first. The ballot said someone had to "complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation." Whether voters even considered that financial detail a factor is anyone's guess.

The question, then: Will the justices of the Florida Supreme Court consider not only what someone advocating for Amendment 4 told them, but also the spirit of what voters believed they were voting for?

Stay tuned for the next move.

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