by Lawrence Mower (Tampa Bay Times)
In a setback to supporters of Amendment 4, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Republican lawmakers who have argued that felons must pay back all court-ordered fees, fines and restitution before registering to vote.
In a narrow opinion requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis, justices gave their answer on one of the questions at the heart of the historic ballot measure voters passed in 2018.
Celebrated as one of the greatest expansions of voting rights in decades, it restored the right to vote to most non-violent felons who completed “all terms of sentence.”
But within months, the phrase “all terms of sentence” became a flash point in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Lawmakers lined up behind Senate Bill 7066, which defined “all terms” to include all financial obligations. It drew criticism from national figures, such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, that the bill created a modern-day poll tax.
Siding with the authors of the bill, justices on Thursday wrote that “all terms“ included any court fees, fines and restitution imposed during a felon‘s sentence.
“We conclude that the phrase, when read and understood in context, plainly refers to obligations and includes ‘all’ — not some — LFOs [legal financial obligations] imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt,” justices wrote.
The opinion does not force lawmakers to take any particular action. But it affirms the actions GOP lawmakers took last session when they passed Senate Bill 7066.
The bill and subsequent decision undercut much of the promise of Amendment 4, passed by nearly two thirds of voters.
It’s believed that hundreds of thousands of felons owe court fees, fines or restitution but are unable to immediately pay off the amounts. Many are on payment plans that may never end. Felons who owe millions of dollars in restitution, for example, face potential lifetime disenfranchisement.
Anger over the bill was directed in particular to lawmakers who had a hand in crafting the legislation.
House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, wrote on Twitter Thursday that two of the representatives behind last year’s bill, Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, and Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, “endured slander but were vindicated“ by the court’s opinion.
The controversy last year prompted DeSantis, who opposed Amendment 4, to ask the state’s conservative Supreme Court to weigh in on the definition of “all terms of sentence.”
The court was expected to produce an opinion favorable to DeSantis and the Legislature, in part because the creators of Amendment 4 themselves had said that “all terms” included all financial obligations.
But before the justices ruled, the American Civil Liberties Union made a different argument. They argued that “all terms” expired when the person was no longer in prison or on probation.
“We are not persuaded by their arguments,” the justices wrote.
The court’s opinion was quickly denounced by Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has sued the state on behalf of some felons who can’t afford to pay back their financial obligations.
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“By holding Floridians’ right to vote hostage, the Florida Supreme Court is permitting the unconstitutional modern-day poll tax in SB 7066, and redefining an amendment nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved of in 2018,” Abudu said in a statement.
A coalition of other groups led by the ACLU said in a statement that the court’s opinion does not affect their federal lawsuit against DeSantis and the Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.
“The court’s ruling also continues to leave plenty of room for the Florida Legislature to correct SB 7066 and allow people who are unable to pay their obligations to vote,” the groups said in a statement.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, one of the two architects of the legislation, said the court decision answers at least one of the questions surrounding the amendment.
“I don’t think you can look at it any other way than an affirmation of what the voters believed,” Brandes said. “They believed they were voting on all terms of sentence, and I think this puts a period at the end of that sentence.”
How the court’s opinion will affect felons waiting to register to vote is unclear. Brandes and other lawmakers are expected to make changes to the bill they passed last session, but they were waiting on the court’s opinion and on an appellate court decision in a separate challenge to the law.
“I think everything’s still on the table now,” Brandes said. “I think this allows us to truly begin the discussion.“