The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request to issue an advisory opinion on whether the state can legally require felons to pay all court fines, fees and restitution before their voting rights are restored under Amendment 4, the November 2018 ballot measure approved by 64.5 percent of state voters.
All seven justices agreed to take up DeSantis’ Aug. 9 request, filed under provisions of Article IV, Section 1(c) of the state constitution that allows the governor to request in writing Supreme Court justices’ interpretation of “any question affecting the governor's executive powers and duties.”
“The court has determined that the request is within the purview of the above-noted provision and the court will exercise its discretion to provide an opinion in response to the governor’s request,” the justices said in a letter to DeSantis Thursday.
Briefs must be filed by Sept. 18 and responses by Oct, 3. Oral arguments are set for Nov. 6.
After November’s Amendment 4 vote to restore felons’ voting rights, DeSantis said the constitutional amendment required an “implementing” bill.
During the ensuing session, Republican lawmakers installed a requirement that felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote into the “implementing” bill – Senate Bill 7066 – claiming it was a concession that supporters agreed to when the proposed amendment was reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court.
Following contentious hearings and capital protests, SB 7066 was adopted by the Senate in a partisan 22-17 vote and by the House in an equal partisan 67-42 tally
Hours after DeSantis signed the bill into law, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law all filed lawsuits contending SB 7066 violates the intent of Amendment 4, which could restore voting rights for as many as 1.4 million felons.
The groups filed their motion for a preliminary injunction in early August in the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida in Tallahassee, claiming SB 7066 institutes a “poll tax” that will prohibit a significant number of otherwise eligible felons from casting ballots.
Although SB 7066 allows felons to petition a judge to waive fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours, opponents argue including financial obligations, which for some can run into hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in restitution, could disqualify as many as two-thirds of felons from voting.
The Supreme Court’s advisory opinion is not legally binding, but could have standing with federal judges in ruling on the lawsuits, which begin their proceedings in October.
In his request to the Supreme Court, DeSantis is not seeking an opinion on the constitutionality of SB 7066 but for a determination on a key phrase in Amendment 4 – “completion of all terms of sentence.”
Referring to an exchange between the justices and attorneys representing Floridians for a Fair Democracy, Amendment 4’s sponsor, during their in March 2017 review of the measure’s language, Desantis cited hearing transcript in noting Justice Ricky Polston asked if “completion of [all] terms" included "full payment of any fines.”
Floridians for a Fair Democracy’s attorney “responded, ‘Yes, sir ... All terms means all terms within the four comers,’” according to the transcript.
Later in the same hearing, Justice Alan Lawson also asked, "You said that terms of sentence includes fines and costs ... that's the way it's generally pronounced in criminal court, would it also include restitution when it was ordered to the victim as part of the sentence?"
“The sponsor answered, ‘Yes,’” according to the transcript cited in DeSantis’ letter.
Justice Barbara Pariente added that including restitution as part of the completion of sentence "would actually help the state because if fines, costs and restitution are a requirement ... for those that want to vote, there's a big motivation to pay unpaid costs, fines and restitution,” according to the transcript.
“Ultimately,” DeSantis said in the letter, “the Court found Amendment 4 clearly and unambiguously informed voters the chief purpose of the proposed amendment was to ‘automatically restore voting rights to felony offenders, except those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, upon completion of all terms of their sentence."