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Florida Supreme Court rules convicted felons must pay off fines before voting

Florida law limits ex-felons voting rights

Florida's Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a law requiring convicted felons to pay off any fines or fees related to their sentence before being able to vote is fair. The opinion sided with Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who had upheld the Republican-controlled legislatures' decision.

The issue arose after Florida voters n 2018 overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure, known as Amendment 4, that amended the state's constitution to give voting rights to former felons — restoring nearly 1.4 million people's right to vote. Republican lawmakers argued that the bill should be more narrowly defined.  

The specific amendment's wording, "all terms of sentence," quickly became a flashpoint in the state. In June 2019, DeSantis signed S.B. 7066, requiring all financial obligations be paid off before a convicted felon can vote. 

DeSantis then requested an advisory opinion from the high court over the issue but did not ask them to determine its constitutionality. Instead, the governor confined his request to whether "all terms of sentence" included legal financial obligations, or LFOs, incurred during a sentence. 

"The answer to the Governor's question largely turns on whether 'all terms of sentence' encompasses all obligations or only durational periods," the court wrote in its opinion. "We conclude that the phrase, when read and understood in context, plainly refers to obligations and includes 'all' — not some — LFOs imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt."

Voting rights advocates have denounced the court's opinion.

"The Florida Supreme Court's decision is disappointing and cuts the 1.4 million people who voters expressly intended to re-enfranchise almost in half," said Nancy Abudu, the Southern Poverty Law Center's deputy legal director. "By holding Floridians' right to vote hostage, the Florida Supreme Court is permitting the unconstitutional modern-day poll tax in SB 7066, and redefining an amendment nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved of in 2018."

A lawsuit filed by voter rights advocacy groups against DeSantis and the Florida Secretary of State over SB 7066 is not affected by the court's opinion, the Tampa Bay Times reported. It remains unclear how the court's opinion will affect felons waiting to register to vote. 

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