Lawsuit concerning voting rights restoration in Florida goes to trial

Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a citizen initiative, in 2018 by a vote of 65% in favor to 35% against. The initiative was designed to automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.

Senate Bill 7066 was signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) in June 2019. The bill required convicted felons to complete “all terms of sentence” including full payment of restitution, or any fines, fees, or costs resulting from the conviction before regaining the right to vote.

Four lawsuits against Senate Bill 7066 were consolidated into one case, Jones v. DeSantis, which went to trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on April 27, 2020. The case was set to be conducted by phone due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Plaintiffs in the case against the state of Florida are represented by the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the Brennan Center for Justice, Campaign Legal Fund of Washington, D.C., the firm of Brazil and Dunn of Miami, and attorney Michael Steinberg.

The ACLU called SB 7066 a poll tax and made the following arguments:

  • SB 7066 violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive fines;
  • SB 7066 violates the First Amendment rights of organizations, like the Florida League of Women Voters, that engage in voter registration activity, because it makes unclear who is qualified to vote and who is not;
  • SB 7066 violates the 19th Amendment, which specifically protects women from any election law that denies or diminishes their right or ability to vote. Women, Black women in particular, who are returning citizens are particularly burdened by SB 7066 due to their low average incomes compared to men, making them less able to pay fines and court fees; and
  • SB 7066 violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which governs voter registration forms, voter registration, and voter list maintenance.

Rulings in U.S. District Court and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and an advisory ruling in the Florida Supreme Court have already been issued concerning SB 7066. After SB 7066 was signed into law, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law filed a different lawsuit seeking to block SB 7066 from taking effect. The groups argued that the bill was unconstitutional because it denied the right to vote based solely on an individual’s inability to pay fines, fees, and restitution associated with their convictions. The case, Gruver v. Barton, concerned 17 individuals and three organizations.

On August 9, 2019, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) asked the Florida Supreme Court for an advisory opinion concerning “whether ‘completion of all terms of sentence’ includes the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations.” On January 16, 2020, the court issued its opinion in which it found that ‘all terms of sentence’ does include the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations.

On October 18, 2019, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in Gruver v. Barton that “the state of Florida cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution.” The ruling applied only to the 17 plaintiffs in the case. The state appealed Hinkle’s October ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Hinkle’s ruling. The state asked the court to reconsider the case en banc, though the court declined.

As of 2018, Florida was one of four states—the three others are Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia—where convicted felons do not regain the right to vote, until and unless a state officer or board restores an individual’s voting rights.

Law360 reported that the Jones v. DeSantis trial is expected to last a week and that the judge plans to issue a ruling quickly upon the trial’s completion.