Felon Voting Rights Trial Begins in Florida, via Conference Call

by Patricia Mazzei (The NY Times)

A closely watched trial by video will determine whether felons who have served their time should have to pay outstanding fines before regaining the right to vote.

MIAMI — Only the judge and a couple of his staff members were in the courtroom when he called the trial to order. The plaintiffs, witnesses and lawyers were at home in front of webcams, awaiting their turns to speak.

The most unusual of trials got underway in Florida on Monday in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Because of the virus, the participants could not safely travel to the federal courthouse in Tallahassee, the state capital. But the question at hand was too important to put off in an election year: Should people with felony convictions have to fully pay back court fines and fees before regaining their right to vote?

Hold the trial too late in the year, and those rejoining the voter rolls, if the court rules in their favor, might not have enough time after all the appeals are over to register before the general election in November. Voters must register by Oct. 5 to be able to vote on Nov. 3. And so Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the United States District Court in Tallahassee devised a plan: The trial would take place via conference call, with the judge, witnesses, prosecution and defense on video. The public would be able to tune in via telephone, with audio only, to allay the fear that too much interest might crash the video system.

The court routinely holds status conferences via phone, and last week, as a result of the pandemic, Judge Hinkle held a small evidentiary hearing by video, his courtroom deputy said. But a full-blown virtual trial over a closely watched constitutional issue? “Never,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of some of the plaintiffs. “We’re really grateful that the court has found a way to let this go forward in spite of the circumstances.”

To make the logistics work, Ms. Ebenstein said her team had to ensure that not only expert witnesses but also the plaintiffs seeking to regain their voting rights had the proper equipment to join the trial. Lawyers sent some of the potential witnesses laptops. They have spent the past week practicing to make sure the hardware, software and internet connections all function.

Marq Mitchell, one of the plaintiffs, worried that his unpredictable internet might falter during the trial. “Hopefully it works,” he said.

Florida voters resoundingly approved Amendment 4, an amendment to the State Constitution, in 2018. It restored the voting rights of people who had committed serious crimes, other than murder or sexual offenses, had done their time and completed probation. Sign up to receive an email when we publish a new story about the coronavirus outbreak.

Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, requiring the payment of court fines, fees and other financial obligations before a felony sentence could be considered fully completed. Some of the debts amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

Civil rights groups saw the law was as an attempt to suppress voting by those convicted of felonies, especially African-Americans and Hispanics who might support Democrats. Tiny margins often decide major political contests in Florida, the nation’s largest presidential swing state.

Mr. Mitchell, 30, voted for the first time in his life in the presidential primary, held in Florida on March 17, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. He cast his ballot in person in Fort Lauderdale and brought along his cousin so they could both vote.

“That was great,” Mr. Mitchell said. “I felt extremely empowered, because I understood that I had the ability to determine who would possibly represent our country in a way that I’d never been able to before.”

Mr. Mitchell cast a ballot despite still owing financial obligations to the court. Judge Hinkle issued a temporary ruling last fall blocking the state law requiring the payment of fines and fees. Lawyers from the A.C.L.U. and other civil rights organizations will argue during this week’s trial that Judge Hinkle should make his decision permanent, and that requiring fine and fee payments amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax.

Mohammad O. Jazil, a defense lawyer for Laurel M. Lee, the Florida secretary of state who oversees elections, argued in his opening statement on Monday that the Amendment 4 language that more than 5.1 million Floridians voted for clearly stipulated that felons would have to complete “all terms of their sentence” before voting. Proponents of Amendment 4 said in court testimony and campaign material ahead of the 2018 election that fines and fees would be repaid.

“The ‘all terms of sentence’ language is clear,” Mr. Jazil said. “That language is unambiguous. That language includes the payment of fines, fees, costs, restitution.” More than 774,000 felons in Florida owe legal financial obligations, Daniel A. Smith, an elections expert and chairman of the political science department at the University of Florida, found in a study submitted as evidence for the plaintiffs. More than 45 percent of the felons he identified owe more than $1,000. Most criminal defendants are indigent when they are arrested.

Florida has no centralized system to determine what felons owe or if they have paid all their court fines and fees. Judge Hinkle has ordered the state to find a way to assess a felon’s ability to pay. Voting rights groups say no apparent progress has been made. Mr. Jazil said the state has been working on it.

The trial got underway on Monday with a few technical hiccups. Mr. Jazil’s video froze at first. Judge Hinkle asked lawyers to repeatedly identify themselves, for the sake of the court record and the people following the trial by phone.

“I would usually tell you to step down,” Judge Hinkle told the first witness, Latoya A. Moreland, one of the plaintiffs, once she completed her testimony. “I’m not sure what the way to put it is now.”

“It’s a new world, and we’re all adjusting on the fly,” Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice in New York who also represents some of the plaintiffs, said in an interview before the trial. “The main reason why this case is going forward as opposed to others is because it’s a voting rights case, and we have an election in November.”

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