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Litigation to Protect Amendment 4 in Florida

Gruver v. Barton (consolidated with Jones v. DeSantis)

Last Updated: July 1, 2020
Published: August 3, 2019

UPDATE: On May 24, 2020, following a trial, the district court ruled in Jones v. DeSantis that Florida’s law conditioning voting on the payment of legal financial obligations ("LFOs") is unconstitutional. The State appealed that decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis. On July 1, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit issued an order suspending the district court's ruling pending appeal and granting the State Defendants' motion to hear the case en banc.

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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.

Prior to Amendment 4, Florida’s constitution permanently disenfranchised all citizens who had been convicted of any felony offense unless the Board of Clemency restored their voting rights. Kentucky and Iowa have similar disenfranchisement policies, however, Florida disenfranchised more than four times as many citizens as those two states combined: between 2010 and 2016, the number of disenfranchised Floridians grew by nearly 150,000 to an estimated total of 1,686,000. In 2016, more than one in five of Florida’s Black voting-age population was disenfranchised.

On January 8, 2019, Amendment 4 became effective.

On May 3, 2019, the Florida legislature voted along party lines to pass SB7066, which prohibits returning citizens from registering to vote unless they pay off all LFOs imposed by a court pursuant to a felony conviction, including those LFOs converted to civil obligations, even if they cannot afford to pay.

On June 28, 2019, SB7066 was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. That same day, the Brennan Center, the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on behalf of individual returning citizens, the Florida NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of Florida challenging SB7066 under the U.S. Constitution.

On August 9, 2019, the Governor initiated a parallel proceeding by requesting an advisory opinion from the Florida Supreme Court as to “whether ‘completion of all terms of sentence’ under Article VI, section 4 of the Florida Constitution includes the satisfaction of all LFOs—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.” The Florida Supreme Court concluded that the phrase “all terms of sentence,” as used in Amendment 4, includes payment of LFOs imposed in conjunction with a felony conviction, but declined to define the word “completion.” For more information on the Governor’s request for an advisory opinion to the Florida Supreme Court, click here.

On October 18, 2019, the district court granted a partial preliminary injunction, ordering that the individual Plaintiffs in our case must be permitted to vote because they have shown they cannot afford to pay LFOs. The Governor and Secretary appealed that ruling to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

On February 19, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the preliminary injunction entered by the district court. The Defendants petitioned for a rehearing en banc, but the court denied that petition on March 31, 2020.

On March 26, 2020, the district court denied Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

A trial in the matter began on April 27, 2020. Due to the coronavirus 2019 pandemic, the trial was held by videoconference.

On May 24, 2020, the district court issued a ruling finding Florida’s “pay-to-vote” system unconstitutional in part. Specifically, the court first found that conditioning voting on payment of LFOs a person is unable to pay violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by discriminating on the basis of wealth. Second, the court held that the State could not condition voting on repayment of certain LFOs (fees and costs), regardless of inability to pay, because they are unconstitutional “taxes” within the meaning of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment. Third, the court held that the registration form required by SB7066 violates the National Voter Rights Act of 1993. Finally, finding that “the State did nothing” with “ample time” to create a workable system to determine who is eligible to vote, the court instead created a system designed to provide certainty to returning citizens.

The State appealed that decision. On July 1, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit issued an order suspending the district court's ruling pending appeal and granting the State Defendants' motion to hear the case en banc.

Documents 

Northern District of Florida

Eleventh Circuit

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