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Litigation to Protect Amendment 4 in Florida

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

Last Updated: September 11, 2020
Published: August 3, 2019

UPDATE: Follow­ing a victory for the Plaintiffs in the district court, the State appealed the decision to the Elev­enth Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed to hear the case on an exped­ited basis. On Septem­ber 11, 2020, the en banc Elev­enth Circuit issued an order revers­ing and vacat­ing the district court’s ruling.


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. 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 June 28, 2019, roughly six months after Flor­ida voters approved Amend­ment 4, Governor DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066 into law. The law prohib­its return­ing citizens from voting unless they pay off all legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions (LFOs) imposed by a court pursu­ant to a felony convic­tion, includ­ing LFOs conver­ted to civil oblig­a­tions, even if they cannot afford to pay.

More than 774,000 Flor­idi­ans are disen­fran­chised by the law. The over­whelm­ing major­ity cannot afford to pay what they owe. Black Flor­idi­ans are more likely to owe money and to owe more than their white coun­ter­parts. The State does not reli­ably or consist­ently track data on what people owe, so it is often impossible to make eligib­il­ity determ­in­a­tions.

The 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 chal­len­ging the law. We repres­ent indi­vidual return­ing citizens, the League of Women Voters of Flor­ida, the Flor­ida NAACP, and the Orange County NAACP. We have since been joined by pro bono coun­sel from Paul Weiss. Our case was consol­id­ated with four others.

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 prelim­in­ary injunc­tion allow­ing the indi­vidual plaintiffs to vote because they could not afford to pay their LFOs. The Governor and Secret­ary of State appealed that ruling to the Elev­enth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Febru­ary 19, 2020, the Elev­enth Circuit affirmed the prelim­in­ary injunc­tion. Defend­ants peti­tioned for a rehear­ing en banc, but the court denied that peti­tion on March 31, 2020.

A trial in the matter began on April 27, 2020. Due to the coronavirus 2019 pandemic, the trial was held by video­con­fer­ence. The evid­ence demon­strated the profound and discrim­in­at­ory impact of SB7066 and the State’s utter inab­il­ity to admin­is­ter it.

On May 24, 2020, the district court issued a ruling find­ing Flor­id­a’s “pay-to-vote” system uncon­sti­tu­tional in part. The Court ruled in Plaintiffs’ favor on four claims:

  • 14th Amend­ment  - Equal Protec­tion Clause: The court held it was uncon­sti­tu­tional wealth discrim­in­a­tion to condi­tion voting on payment of LFOs a person cannot afford.
  • 24th Amend­ment: 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 taxes.
  • 14th Amend­ment – Due Process Clause: The court held the law was void for vague­ness and failed to provide proced­ural due process and enjoined the State from condi­tion­ing voting on paying unknown amounts or those that can’t be determ­ined with dili­gence.
  • National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act: The court held that the new voter regis­tra­tion form created by SB7066 viol­ated the NVRA.

As a remedy for these viol­a­tions, the court provided guidelines for determ­in­ing abil­ity to pay and a process for those unsure of their eligib­il­ity to register and vote. Any voter could request an advis­ory opin­ion on their eligib­il­ity from the State and, if they did not receive a response within 21 days, could register and vote.

The State appealed everything but the NVRA ruling. The Elev­enth Circuit stayed the injunc­tion pending appeal and set the case for an initial hear­ing en banc. On July 16, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to vacate the stay. The Elev­enth Circuit heard argu­ments via video­con­fer­ence on August 18, 2020.

On Septem­ber 11, 2020, the en banc Elev­enth Circuit issued an order revers­ing and vacat­ing the district court’s ruling.


North­ern District of Flor­ida

Elev­enth Circuit


Supreme Court

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