A federal judge has turned down Florida’s request to suspend proceedings in legal challenges to a 2019 state law that requires felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee on Tuesday asked U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to delay hearings – under way since August – until the Florida Supreme Court issues an advisory opinion on the law that implemented Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment approved by 64.5 percent of voters in November that restored voting rights for as many as 1.4 million felons.
But in a brief order issued Wednesday and posted Thursday, Hinkle denied the request.
In their seven-page motion to stay, state attorneys asked Hinkle to suspend hearings in the federal case until the Supreme Court weighs in on the matter, “as the opinion would be instructive on a question of state law interpretation that has practical implications on the challenges raised in these actions.”
After Hinkle denied the state’s motion to dismiss legal challenges to the implementing law, on Aug. 9 DeSantis submitted a request to the state’s Supreme Court 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.
On Aug. 28, all seven justices agreed. Briefs must be filed by Sept. 18 and responses by Oct, 3. Oral argument are set for Nov. 6.
Hearings began in the federal case – four lawsuits consolidated into one challenge – on Aug. 15.
The U.S. District Court’s docket lists Sept. 16 and 23 deadlines for parties to file motions in support of and opposition to Hinkle’s denial of the state’s request to dismiss the case.
A preliminary-injunction hearing is slated for Oct. 7. “If not completed that day, the hearing will continue from day to day until concluded. Oral argument will be permissible on all issues that have not been resolved by prior orders,” the court’s scheduling order states.
After November’s 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 Senate Bill 7066, claiming it was a concession sponsors agreed to when it was reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court.
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, is essentially a financial disqualification – “a poll tax” – for many low-income felons.
Following contentious hearings and capital protests, SB 7066 was adopted by the Senate in a 22-17 vote and by the House in a 67-42 tally. Both votes were strictly partisan, with Democrats in opposition.
Within days – hours in two instances – of DeSantis signing SB 7066, four lawsuits were filed claiming the bill violated the intent of the ballot measure approved by voters.
Law suits by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law were consolidated into one case and assigned to the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida in Tallahassee.
During an Aug. 15 hearing, Hinkle asked both sides to address whether the amendment requires payment of financial obligations and what it would mean if it does.
Plaintiffs argued Amendment 4 did not require payment of “legal financial obligations.” Even if it does, that shouldn’t prevent automatic restoration of voting rights established in the constitutional amendment from taking effect.
Anticipating a state request to delay the federal court case until the state Supreme Court issues an advisory opinion, plaintiffs told Hinkle such a pause “would take considerable time and threaten to unlawfully disenfranchise plaintiffs in the upcoming presidential primary election,” scheduled for March 17.
In their motion Tuesday, state attorneys argued rather than deliberate on “hypothetical questions as to what Florida’s Constitution means regarding satisfaction of legal financial obligations,” all parties should wait until the Supreme Court issues its advisory determination.
That opinion “will provide clarity and finality on that issue — an issue solely in their jurisdiction,” the state’s lawyers wrote in their Tuesday motion to Hinkle.