The Supreme Court allowed Florida on Thursday to bar people with felony convictions from voting unless they have paid court fines and fees.
The court’s brief, unsigned order gave no reasons, which is typical when the justices consider emergency applications. It left in place an appeals court’s stay of a trial judge’s ruling that Florida’s voting restrictions were unconstitutional.
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, said the order “continues a trend of condoning disfranchisement.”
“This court’s order prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.
In 2018, Florida’s voters amended the state’s Constitution to end the disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies, except for murder and rape, “upon completion of all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.”
The next year, the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature enacted a law that defined that phrase to include the payment of fines, restitution, costs and fees.
Civil rights groups and voters affected by the law sued, saying that it would require hundreds of thousands of citizens of the state to pay money to vote, in violation of equal protection principles and the 24th Amendment, which barred poll taxes. They added that the state had been unable to calculate how much potential voters owed.
Judge Robert L. Hinkle, of the Federal District Court in Tallahassee, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, entering a preliminary injunction, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, affirmed that ruling.
In May, Judge Hinkle, applying the panel’s reasoning, entered a permanent injunction.
“The State of Florida has adopted a system under which nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money,” he wrote. “Most of the citizens lack the financial resources to make the required payment. Many do not know, and some will not be able to find out, how much they must pay.”
“This pay-to-vote system,” Judge Hinkle wrote, “would be universally decried as unconstitutional but for one thing: Each citizen at issue was convicted, at some point in the past, of a felony offense. A state may disenfranchise felons and impose conditions on their re-enfranchisement. But the conditions must pass constitutional scrutiny. Whatever might be said of a rationally constructed system, this one falls short in substantial respects.”
Florida officials sought a stay of that second ruling while their appeal moved forward, and the full appeals court granted it on July 1 in a three-sentence order without explanation. The appeals court will hear arguments in August.
In their Supreme Court brief, lawyers for the voters urged the justices to lift the appeals court’s stay. “The 11th Circuit’s stay creates chaos and confusion about who can and cannot vote,” the brief said, “where a wrong guess creates the risk of criminal prosecution.”
In response, state officials wrote that “the state and all Floridians will be irreparably harmed if hundreds of thousands of ineligible voters take part in the upcoming election.”
In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor recalled that the court had refused in April to extend absentee voting in Wisconsin because a judge had changed the status quo shortly before an election. Such last-minute changes are disfavored, the court said in 2006 in Purcell v. Gonzalez.
“Ironically,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, “this court has wielded Purcell as a reason to forbid courts to make voting safer during a pandemic, overriding two federal courts because any safety related changes supposedly came too close to Election Day. Now, faced with an appellate court stay that disrupts a legal status quo and risks immense disfranchisement — a situation that Purcell sought to avoid — the court balks.”