The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that convicted felons must pay off fines and other fees related to their sentences before they regain the right to vote.
The court issued an advisory opinion (pdf) on Thursday ruling that the phrase, “all terms of sentence,” under the Florida Constitution encompasses all obligations ordered by a sentencing court including financial ones such as fines, restitution, costs, and fees.
The court released the opinion after Governor Ron DeSantis (R) requested the judges clarify “all terms of sentence,” which had come under dispute between DeSantis and voting rights advocacy groups after the governor signed Senate Bill 7066 last year mandating that all formerly incarcerated pay off restitution, court fees, and fines before their voting rights are restored (pdf).
DeSantis and the state government argued that the phrase includes all terms of the sentence, including financial obligations ordered by the sentencing judge. Meanwhile, some advocacy groups argued that the phrase only includes periods of imprisonment and supervised release, while others say it includes some financial penalties but not others.
In November 2018, Florida passed an amendment, commonly referred to as Amendment 4, to the state’s constitution that allows ex-convicts to vote “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation,” but excludes those who were convicted of murder or felony sexual offense. Before the amendment, all former convicted felons were permanently disenfranchised without a grant of executive clemency.
After DeSantis signed SB 7066, several civil rights groups represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and 10 Florida residents sued the governor in the federal court in an attempt to stop the new law (pdf). They argued that the law denies people with felony convictions the right to vote and penalizes them based on their inability to pay off fees and fines.
Some of those plaintiffs filed briefs and presented oral argument to the court. Some argued that costs and fines do not bear the hallmark of a “sentence,” meanwhile, others argued that Amendment 4 only includes financial obligation set out in the state’s criminal procedure rules.
The state’s top court rejected most of the groups’ reasoning, saying that “their attempts to isolate and parse the word ‘sentence’ to carve out” certain fines and fees improperly interprets the word “in a technical sense” rather than using a “plain, common sense” meaning.
“Amendment 4 … uses the word ‘sentence’ in its plain, common sense. And it does so in the context of the broad phrase ‘all terms of sentence.'” the judges wrote. “Absent any suggestion in the context of Amendment 4 that the word ‘sentence’ carries a technical meaning restricting its scope, there is no basis to conclude that ‘all terms of sentence’ excludes any [fines and fees] ordered by the sentencing judge.”
The ACLU said in a statement that the Florida Supreme Court’s opinion will not impact their federal litigation, saying that the state court was not asked to and did not “determine when all terms of sentence are ‘complete,'” adding that it was an issue under consideration in the federal case.
“The court’s ruling also continues to leave plenty of room for the Florida Legislature to correct SB7066 and allow people who are unable to pay their obligations to vote,” the group said.
Meanwhile, DeSantis welcomed the top court’s opinion, saying that he was “pleased that @FLCourts confirms that Amendment 4 requires fines, fees & restitution be paid to victims before [criminals’] voting rights may be restored.”
“Voting is a privilege that should not be taken lightly, and I am obligated to faithfully implement Amendment 4 as it is defined,” he added.