The Supreme Court yesterday allowed Florida to bar people with felony convictions from voting unless they pay court fees, fines, and restitution. The ruling means that nearly a million otherwise-eligible Florida residents won’t be able to vote.
In 2018, Florida voters decided to end felony disenfranchisement—a practice rooted in racial subordination and bigotry—and restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million people with felony convictions by passing a state constitutional amendment known as Amendment 4.
Republican lawmakers passed a law last year to restrict the impact of Amendment 4 by denying people with felony convictions the right to vote unless they paid all fees, fines, and restitution. Florida residents who were blocked from voting because they could not afford to pay filed a lawsuit challenging the new law in federal court.
In October 2019, the federal court found that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their claim that Florida’s “pay-to-vote” scheme is unconstitutional. The court issued a preliminary injunction allowing people with felony convictions who could not afford to pay their outstanding legal financial obligations to register to vote. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed that decision in March.
In May, after an eight-day trial, the federal court issued a final 125-page ruling holding that Florida cannot deny people with felony convictions the right to vote solely because they are too poor to pay fines and fees. The court also held that Florida can’t require people to pay court fees and costs because—unlike fines and restitution—they are taxes, and the 24th Amendment provides that the right to vote cannot be denied for failing to pay “any poll tax or other tax.”
The court set out a new system based on the fact that most felony sentences don’t include a fine or restitution and the overwhelming majority of people with felony convictions who haven’t paid their LFOs in full are genuinely unable to pay—and therefore must be allowed to vote.
On July 1—more than a month after the district court’s judgment and 19 days before the voter-registration deadline for the state’s primary election in August—the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals put the court’s judgment on hold pending appeal. Even though it had earlier upheld the lower court based on the same reasoning, the federal appeals court provided no reasons for changing its mind.
The plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to vacate the Eleventh Circuit’s order. The Court denied that request in a short, unsigned order.
“This Court’s inaction continues a trend of condoning disfranchisement,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. And by allowing the Eleventh Circuit “to reverse course in an unexplained stay order right before an election,” she wrote, the Court condones the “confusion and voter chill” that its own precedent instructs courts to avoid.
Tens of thousands of people with felony convictions have already registered to vote—as the court’s 2019 ruling said they could do. Now, the dissent observed, “these voters will have no notice of their potential ineligibility or the resulting criminal prosecution they may face for failing to follow the abrupt change in law.”
“Making matters worse,” Justice Sotomayor added, “the Eleventh Circuit will not hear argument on this case until August 18, the day of the primary election.”