- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2019

Felons released from prison in Florida are going back to court, but this time to fight for their voting rights.

The ex-cons thought those rights were restored when Florida voters approved the change last year. But state lawmakers then decided it should take more than jail time to pay the debt to society and passed a law requiring all crime-related financial obligations — fines, restitution, court costs — be paid before a ballot is cast.

“It creates two classes of returning citizens: those who are wealthy enough to vote and those who cannot afford to,” the American Civil Liberties Union argued in the lawsuit.

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A federal judge agreed and ruled last week that forcing poor felons to pay debts before casting a vote was equivalent to a poll tax and violates the Constitution.

“The state of Florida cannot deny an individual plaintiff the right to vote just because the plaintiff lacks the financial resources to pay,” Judge Robert L. Hinkle wrote when issuing a preliminary injunction halting the requirement.

The ruling comes after a group of former felons challenged the law. The decision applies only to the group of 10 former felons, but it could be used as a steppingstone for others to restore their access to the polls.

The statute was enacted after voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018 restoring voting rights for felons who had completed “all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” The term “all terms of sentence” has been up for debate in terms of whether court fees and restitution must be met before voting rights are fully restored. The amendment excluded those convicted of murder or a felony sexual assault from having their ability to vote returned.

Julie Ebenstein, a lawyer with the ACLU, which represented the former felons, said the ruling sets a constitutional principle.

“The court certainly suggests that the state law should be adjusted to avoid a constitutional violation,” Ms. Ebenstein said.

Steven Phalen is one of the challengers who will benefit from the ruling. He was convicted of arson in Wisconsin in 2005 and was sentenced to probation and a fine of $150,000. He still owes about $110,000. Wisconsin restores voting rights after a sentence is complete without considering any lingering financial obligations.

But Phalen worried since he still owed money out of state for his conviction, Florida wouldn’t permit him to vote, so he joined the legal battle.

Roughly 1.4 million people would be eligible to vote if financial obligations linked to the sentences were not required to be paid — an issue that the Florida Supreme Court will weigh in on after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the justices to issue an advisory opinion. Hearings are expected next month.

Stephen Schnably, a law professor at the University of Miami, said the Florida Supreme Court, when interpreting whether financial obligations must be satisfied under the words of the law, isn’t bound by the federal court’s decision.

“”My guess is that the Florida Supreme Court will certainly read the federal court opinion, but will reach its own conclusions without giving any decisive weight to the federal court’s prediction of how it will rule,” Mr. Schnably said.

Louis Virelli, a law professor at Stetson University, said other former felons are likely to use the federal district court ruling to advance their case to restore the right to vote.

“This is just sort of the first step — but it’s a big first step in a sense that the ruling is powerful,” Mr. Virelli said.

Voting rights for felons vary from state to state. In Vermont and Maine, felons never lose the right to vote even while incarcerated, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 16 states and the District of Columbia, felons’ voting rights are automatically restored once they are released from custody. Most other states have other hurdles for felons to meet before they can cast ballots.

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