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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.

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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. 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.

Documents 

Northern District of Florida

Eleventh Circuit

 

Supreme Court

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