TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s high court waded into the legal wrangling over the voting rights of felons, agreeing Thursday to examine whether the state can continue restricting voting privileges to felons who have unpaid fines and fees.
Voters last year overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to as many as 1.4 million felons who have completed their sentences.
But the Republican-controlled Legislature then stipulated that to complete sentences, felons must pay all fines and fees before getting their voting rights restored. DeSantis signed the bill into law.
Voting rights groups immediately sued in federal court and likened the requirement to an illegal poll tax.
Gov. Ron DeSantis then asked the state Supreme Court for an advisory on the issue, which the court has agreed to consider.
“The Governor has the duty to implement both the amendment and the law, which must be done appropriately,” said the governor’s spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferre. “That is why he is asking the Florida Supreme Court to provide an opinion on this matter and he is pleased that they have agreed to do so.”
While the state Supreme Court’s advisory opinion may not be legally binding, it could hold some sway among federal judges seeking further legal guidance on the matter.
To be clear, the governor’s request does not ask the state’s justices to determine the constitutionality of the legislatively enacted law. Instead, the governor is asking the court to make a determination as to the meaning of a key phrase in the voter-approved measure known as Amendment 4.
The measure, which was ratified by voters in November, restored voting rights to felons — except convicted murderers and sex offenders.
The key question DeSantis wants the justices to answer is whether the phrase “completion of all terms of sentence,” which was included in Amendment 4, encompasses fines, fees, restitution and other financial obligations imposed in a sentencing order.
Florida’s high court said it would hear oral arguments on the governor’s request in November, about a month after a federal court is scheduled to hold its own hearing on a request by voting rights advocates to suspend the law enacted by the Legislature.
“We think it’s quite clear what Amendment 4 meant,” said Sean Morales-Davis, a senior counsel for the Brennan Law Center’s Democracy program, one of the groups suing the state over Senate Bill 7066.
“It was a decision by about 65% of Florida’s voters to provide for automatic rights restoration and to put an end to this system of permanent felony disenfranchisement in Florida,” Morales-Davis said.