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Advisory Opinion to the Governor Re: Implementation of Amendment 4, The Voting Restoration Amendment

On November 6, 2018, nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that automatically restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million Floridians, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, who had completed the terms of their sentence including parole or probation. Amendment 4 went into effect on January 8, 2019. On January 16, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion concluding that the phrase “all terms of sentence,” as used in Amendment 4, includes payment of legal financial obligations imposed in conjunction with a felony conviction.

Last Updated: January 16, 2020
Published: August 9, 2019

On November 6, 2018, nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that automatically restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million Floridians, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, who had completed the terms of their sentence including parole or probation. Amendment 4 went into effect on January 8, 2019.

Eight months later, on August 9, 2019, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court to issue an advisory opinion as to “whether ‘completion of all terms of sentence’” under Amendment 4 “includes the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations—namely fees, fines and restitution ordered by the court as part of a felony sentence that would otherwise render a convicted felon ineligible to vote.”

Essentially, Gov. DeSantis sought an advisory opinion about the propriety of SB7066, a bill he signed into law on June 28, 2019, under the Florida Constitution. SB7066 prohibits people with felony convictions from registering to vote unless they pay off all legal financial obligations (“LFOs”) imposed by a court pursuant to a felony conviction, including those LFOs converted to civil obligations, even if they cannot afford to pay.

Through his request, DeSantis initiated a parallel proceeding to Gruver v. Barton, a lawsuit filed by the Brennan Center, the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund challenging SB7066 under the U.S. Constitution. In that case, Plaintiffs’ expert, Dan Smith, has estimated that as many as 80% of those re-enfranchised by Amendment 4 could be disenfranchised once again by SB7066. For more information on the lawsuit, click here.

On August 29, 2019, the Florida Supreme Court agreed to issue an advisory opinion and scheduled oral argument for November 6, 2019.

On September 18, 2019, the Brennan Center, the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Florida NAACP, Orange County Branch of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of Florida filed a brief as interested parties. The Center’s brief argues: (1) the Florida Supreme Court should decline the Governor’s request for an advisory opinion because it is improper; and (2) if the Florida Supreme Court decides to issue an advisory opinion, a plain reading of Amendment 4 demonstrates that “completion of all terms of sentence” cannot mandate inclusion of legal financial obligations that extend beyond the terms of imprisonment, parole, or probation.

On November 6, 2019, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments from attorneys representing Florida lawmakers and advocates.

On January 16, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued its advisory opinion, which concluded that "all terms of sentence" includes LFOs imposed in conjunction with a felony conviction. 

The state court's ruling does not change the Brennan Center's position in ongoing federal litigation challenging SB7066 under the U.S. Constitution. As the federal court in that litigation has already held, the U.S. Constitution prohibits denying people the right to vote because of their inability to pay financial obligations. The U.S. Constitution also prohibits making voting rights contingent on the payment of taxes, and it requires Florida to provide due process to citizens before taking their voting rights away. Senate Bill 7066 violates these prohibitions, and nothing about the Florida Supreme Court's advisory opinion changes that. The state court did not interpret the U.S. Constitution or federal law. It answers a narrow question of state law and does not alter the Florida legislature's obligations to abide by the U.S. Constitution.

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