TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s history of razor-thin elections and its swing-state status in the upcoming presidential election have intensified a legal battle over a state law requiring all felons to pay “legal financial obligations” to vote.
Republican lawmakers passed the law last year to implement a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.
But the part of the law requiring payment of court-ordered fines, fees and restitution sparked civil-rights organizations to challenge its constitutionality. Linking finances with voting rights amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax,” the groups argued.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction in October and ruled that the state cannot bar felons who are “genuinely unable to pay” from voting. He ordered Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to come up with a process in which felons could try to prove that they are unable to pay financial obligations and should be able to vote.
The governor appealed the decision, but a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed up Hinkle. DeSantis asked the Atlanta-based appeals court for what is known as an “en banc,” or full court, review, but the court hasn’t decided whether to grant his request.
During a hearing in the case Thursday, Hinkle learned that Secretary of State Laurel Lee’s office hasn’t come up with an administrative process to identify which felons have outstanding legal financial obligations or how to determine which felons can’t pay outstanding fines and fees.
The judge was not pleased. He told the state to get the work done before a two-week trial in the case begins on April 27 — — or else.
“If the state is not going to fix it, I will,” Hinkle snapped during a telephone hearing.
Hinkle also said he intended to grant class-action status to the plaintiffs, meaning his ruling in the lawsuit could affect hundreds of thousands of felons whose voting eligibility remains uncertain.
Time is a critical element of the lawsuit: The plaintiffs, and Hinkle, want a decision before the Oct. 5 deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 3 general election.
But the novel coronavirus has caused a hitch in the justice system. Obeying health officials’ recommendations about “social distancing,” courts have shut down nearly all face-to-face proceedings.
As roomy as the Tallahassee federal courthouse is, it would be difficult to squeeze the more-than four dozen lawyers in the case into Hinkle’s courtroom.
Hinkle plans to hold a virtual trial, and Mohammad Jazil, Lee’s attorney, told the judge Thursday he and the other lawyers are checking out different online meeting services.
Hinkle will hold another telephone hearing on Thursday to get an update on which service the attorneys want to use.
DeSantis’ recent edict that all visitors from New York must self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving in the Sunshine State adds another wrinkle to the case: Many of the plaintiffs’ lawyers are New Yorkers.
“That makes it real hard for New York lawyers to come down here and try a case,” Hinkle said Thursday.