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Stories about Florida

U.S. District Judge rules Florida cannot condition voting on financial obligations a felon is unable to pay

On May 24, 2020, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida cannot prevent felony convicts from voting based on fines, fees, or restitution they are unable to pay.

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. Under the amendment, voting rights would be restored 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. In August 2019, DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court for an advisory opinion concerning whether “all terms of sentence” included legal financial obligations (court fees, fines, restitution) and on January 16, 2020, the supreme court found that “all terms of sentence” does include the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations.

Five lawsuits against Senate Bill 7066 were consolidated into one— Kevin Leon Jones et al. vs Ron DeSantis et al.— and the case went to trial on April 27, 2020. Plaintiffs included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Campaign Legal Fund of Washington, D.C. The original plaintiffs in the case were 17 individual plaintiffs and three organizations: the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Orange County Branch of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of Florida.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in that the state can prohibit felons from voting if they have outstanding legal financial obligations (court fees, restitution, fines) that they are able to pay, but that the state cannot prohibit a person from voting if they have outstanding legal financial obligations that they are unable to pay. Hinkle said the system under Senate Bill 7066 was an “unconstitutional pay-to-vote system.”

Hinkle said that felons (a) who could not afford an attorney and were therefore appointed one and (b) who had their legal financial obligations converted to civil liens could register to vote. Other felons who are unable to pay their financial obligations can request a determination from Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee (R), who must issue the determination within 21 days and must include information such as how much money is owed and how the state calculated the amount. If the Secretary of State does not issue the determination within 21 days of receipt, the felon may register to vote.

The plaintiffs argued that provisions of SB 7066 that conditioned voting on the payment of legal financial obligations violated the following:

  • the Eighth Amendment (a prohibition on excessive fines);
  • the First Amendment rights of organizations involved in voter registration activities such as the League of Women Voters;
  • the 19th Amendment by diminishing women’s voting rights “due to their low average incomes compared to men;” and
  • the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

The ruling was expected to be appealed by the state.

In October 2019, Hinkle granted a preliminary injunction in Jones v DeSantis case, which applied only to the 17 individual plaintiffs, and provided that the individuals could not be stopped from voting based on the inability to pay legal financial obligations. The state appealed the ruling, and the ruling was later upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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.



After two-month delay, Florida governor appoints two Florida Supreme Court justices

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) appointed John Couriel and Renatha Francis to the Florida Supreme Court on May 26, 2020. Couriel and Francis succeeded Justices Robert J. Luck and Barbara Lagoa, who vacated the seats in November 2019 after being elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Couriel and Francis will join one other DeSantis nominee, Justice Carlos Muñiz, on the seven-member supreme court.

Under Florida law, state supreme court justices are chosen using the assisted appointment method, where the governor chooses a nominee from a list of potential candidates provided by a judicial nominating commission. Newly appointed judges serve for at least one year, after which they appear in a yes-no retention election held during the next general election. If retained, judges serve six-year terms. To remain on the bench, Couriel and Francis must run for retention in 2022.

The appointments were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Normally under state law, DeSantis would have needed to select the new justices by March 23. He delayed the appointments in March, saying he had not had time to review the candidates’ application materials.

Couriel is an attorney at Kobre & Kim in Miami. Before that, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida’s Criminal Division. Couriel obtained his bachelor’s degree (A.B.) and his J.D. from Harvard. He was a 2016 Republican candidate for Florida House of Representatives District 114 and a 2012 Republican candidate for Florida State Senate District 35.

Francis is a judge on the Florida 15th Circuit Court. She was appointed to that court on October 1, 2019, by Gov. DeSantis. Before that, she served on the Florida 11th Circuit Court (2018-2019) and on the Miami-Dade County Court (2017-2018). Francis earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of the West Indies and a J.D. from Florida Coastal School of Law. She was born in Jamaica and is the first Caribbean-American to serve on the Florida Supreme Court.

Media coverage of the appointment process focused on issues of diversity and questions surrounding Francis’ eligibility. Appellate lawyer Adam Richardson wrote in Slate that the governor was not authorized to appoint Francis, arguing she did not meet the requirement that Florida Supreme Court justices be admitted to practice law in the state for 10 years prior to assuming the bench. Other writers, like Eugene K. Pettis in the Tallahassee Democrat, argued that waiting to appoint Francis “outweighs the ramifications of our high court lacking diversity for years to come.”

In 2019, there were 22 supreme court vacancies across 14 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. Of those 22 vacancies, 15 are in states where a Republican governor appoints the replacement. Six vacancies occurred in a state where a Democratic governor fills vacancies, while another occurred in a state where a Republican-controlled legislature appoints replacements.

In 2020, there have been 13 supreme court vacancies in nine of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. Eight vacancies are in states where a Democratic governor appoints the replacement, and four are in states where a Republican governor appoints the replacement. One vacancy is in a state where the state supreme court votes to appoint the replacement.

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Supreme Court of Florida delays jury trials through July 2

On May 4, 2020, Charles Canady, the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, issued a new emergency order extending the suspension of jury trials through July 2.
The order also increases the number of proceedings that will be conducted remotely. The list includes non-jury trials, hearings in juvenile delinquency cases, and pretrial conferences. For first-degree murder cases, only preliminary hearings are suspended through July 2.
Ballotpedia is tracking how state courts are responding to the coronavirus pandemic.


President Trump announces two judicial nominees

On April 29, President Donald Trump (R) announced two nominees to Article III federal judicial positions. Article III federal judges are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and serve for life. The nominees include:

  • Aileen Mercedes Cannon, nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida
  • James Wesley Hendrix, nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas
  • Dirk B. Paloutzian, nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California

Since assuming office in January 2017, Trump has nominated 255 individuals to serve as Article III federal judges. The president nominated 69 judicial nominees in 2017, 92 in 2018, and 77 in 2019.

Since January 2017, the Senate has confirmed 194 of President Trump’s judicial nominees—139 district court judges, 51 appeals court judges, two Court of International Trade judges, and two Supreme Court justices.



25 of 26 Florida state judges file for retention

State court justices in Florida had until April 24, 2020, to file to run for retention. The terms of 26 Florida state court justices—one supreme court justice and 25 appellate court justices—are set to expire in January 2021. The retention elections are scheduled for November 3, 2020.

A retention election provides voters with the option to vote “Yes” in favor of keeping a certain judge on the bench or “No” in order to remove them from office. A judge must receive a majority of “Yes” votes in order to be retained. Both the supreme court and the appellate court justices are elected to six-year terms.

Florida Supreme Court Judge Carlos Muñiz filed for retention. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) appointed Muñiz to the seven-member court on January 22, 2019.

Twenty-five of the 64 Florida District Courts of Appeal justices are up for retention in 2020, and all but one of them filed to run. Florida Third District Court of Appeal Judge Vance Salter did not file for retention. He was sworn into office on June 27, 2007, and will serve until his term ends on January 4, 2021.

A total of 288 state court seats are up for election across the United States in 2020. Thirty-five states are holding state supreme court elections, and 82 of the nation’s 344 state supreme court seats are up for election. Thirty states are holding intermediate appellate court elections for 206 seats.

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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.


Candidate filing period passes for congressional races in Florida

The filing deadline to run for congressional office in Florida is April 24. Neither of Florida’s two U.S. Senate seats are up for election in 2020. All 27 of Florida’s U.S. House seats are up for election. The incumbents filed for re-election in 25 of those 27 districts, leaving two seats open. The incumbents who filed for re-election include:

  • District 1: Matt Gaetz (R)
  • District 2: Neal Dunn (R)
  • District 4: John Rutherford (R)
  • District 5: Alfred Lawson (D)
  • District 6: Michael Waltz (R)
  • District 7: Stephanie Murphy (D)
  • District 8: Bill Posey (R)
  • District 9: Darren Soto (D)
  • District 10: Val Demings (D)
  • District 11: Daniel Webster (R)
  • District 12: Gus Bilirakis (R)
  • District 13: Charlie Crist (D)
  • District 14: Kathy Castor (D)
  • District 15: Ross Spano (R)
  • District 16: Vern Buchanan (R)
  • District 17: Greg Steube (R)
  • District 18: Brian Mast (R)
  • District 20: Alcee Hastings (D)
  • District 21: Lois Frankel (D)
  • District 22: Ted Deutch (D)
  • District 23: Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D)
  • District 24: Frederica Wilson (D)
  • District 25: Mario Diaz-Balart (R)
  • District 26: Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D)
  • District 27: Donna Shalala (D)

District 3 Representative Ted Yoho (R), who is currently serving his fourth term in the House, did not file for re-election. In December 2019, he announced he would not seek re-election because of his pledge not to serve more than four terms. District 19 Representative Francis Rooney (R), who is currently serving his second term in the House, also did not file for re-election. In October 2019, he announced he would not seek re-election and said, “I’ve done what I came to do, and I want to be a model for term limits.”

Florida’s primary is scheduled for August 18. The general election is on November 3, 2020.

Florida’s filing deadline was the 36th to take place in the 2020 election cycle. The next statewide filing deadline is in Massachusetts on May 5, which is the deadline for candidates to file with local election officials.

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Candidate filing periods end in Michigan and Florida

Major party filing deadlines passed to run for elected office in Michigan on April 21 and Florida on April 24.

In Michigan, candidates filed for the following state offices:
  • Michigan House of Representatives (110 seats)
  • Ballotpedia is also covering local elections in Wayne County

Michigan’s filing deadline was extended from April 21 to May 8, 2020, for candidates to offices that require nominating petitions to access the ballot. These include non-incumbent judicial candidates and independent state executive candidates, among others. Offices that offer candidates the option to pay filing fees to access the ballot did not have their filing period extended.

In Florida, candidates filed for the following state offices:
  • Supreme Court (1 seat)
  • Intermediate Appellate Court (23 seats)
  • Ballotpedia is also covering local elections in the following areas: Jacksonville, Hillsborough County, Miami-Dade County, Orange County, and Pinellas County

The primary in Michigan is scheduled for August 4, and the primary in Florida is scheduled for August 18. The general election in both states is scheduled for November 3, 2020.

Michigan and Florida’s statewide filing deadlines were the 35th and 36th to take place in the 2020 election cycle. The next statewide filing deadline is on May 5 in Massachusetts.

Michigan has a divided government, meaning no political party holds a state government trifecta. Florida has a Republican state government trifecta. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers.



Florida closes schools for the year

On Saturday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) closed schools for the remainder of the academic year. Prior to the announcement, schools were closed through May 1. Florida became the 32nd state to close schools for the remainder of the academic year.

Thirty-two states have closed schools for the remainder of the academic year: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. Those states account for 71.3% of the 50.6 million public school students in the country.

Ballotpedia is providing comprehensive coverage on how the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is affecting America’s political and civic life. Our coverage includes how federal, state, and local governments are responding, and the effects those responses are having on campaigns and elections.



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