This is a follow up to our last article; Democratic Members of the Senate Judiciary Have Suggested Judge’s Luck and Lagoa’s Non-Recusal Violates the Code of Conduct. As you will see, the Senate (Dems) received the formal judicial bird doctrine in response from these hastily appointed Trump Judges.
Federal appeals court considers whether to uphold Florida felon voting law
August 18, 2020
TALLAHASSEE — A federal appeals court on Tuesday spent more than two hours weighing whether to overturn a contentious Florida law restricting felon voting rights, with one judge suggesting that doing so would paradoxically require the court to strike down a public referendum that eliminated the state’s ban on felon voting.
The judges, sitting the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, peppered lawyers with questions about whether or not the state law constitutes an illegal poll tax because it requires people who have served time for a felony to pay off any court debts before they can register to vote.
A final decision in the case, which may ultimately be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, could have significant political implications in the nation’s largest swing state, where many elections are decided by narrow margins. It remains unclear if the court will make a decision before the November election.
The case is also being watched closely by other states, many of which filed briefs urging the court to uphold a May ruling that struck down provisions of the felon voting law.
The clash centers around whether the law is an end run around Amendment 4, a ballot measures voters approved in 2018 to end the state’s lifetime prohibition on voting by ex-felons. The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed the law the following year, requiring all former felons to pay off outstanding court debts in order to be eligible to vote.
Voting and civil rights group sued Gov. Ron DeSantis and state election officials over the move, and U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle in May struck down most of the law as an unconstitutional “pay to vote” scheme. The appeals court, which is dominated by judges appointed by President Donald Trump, stepped in and put the decision on hold while it considered an appeal.
In the most noteworthy exchange Tuesday, Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Trump appointee, asked lawyers whether upholding Hinkle’s ruling also required the appeals court to strike down Amendment 4. Lagoa suggested that Amendment 4, which says most ex-felons must complete “all terms of sentence,” also requires payment of court debts — and that there is was no way to sever that requirement from the rest of the amendment.
“The existing statute only exists because of Amendment 4,” Lagoa said. “You have to strike something. Are you asking us to rewrite a constitutional provision?”
Julie Ebenstein, senior lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, disputed that such a move was needed.
“Everyone agrees that nullifying Amendment 4 would be an absurd result,” Ebenstein said.
Lagoa was one of several judges to express skepticism about the challenge to the law.
Much of the back-and-forth between lawyers and the panel of judges dealt with how the law works and how the state has tried to implement it. Several judges noted that the law does allow ex-felons to ask a judge to modify their legal financial obligations and instead require community service.
Judge Kevin Newsom, a Trump appointee, took issue with the assertion that the requirement of paying court fees was a poll tax by noting the fees were not paid by those who were acquitted.
Charles Cooper, a Washington attorney representing DeSantis, argued that Florida has a right to condition voter eligibility on felons paying “their debt to society, a debt that includes the financial terms of their sentence.”
Lawyers for the groups that challenged the law asked the appeals court to uphold Hinkle’s decision.
“The size of a person’s pocketbook should never determine access to the ballot box,” argued Nancy Abudu, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center who represents several ex-felons who sued over the case.
Florida has not actively enforced the law after it took effect last July. But voting activists contend the legal battle has created confusion about whether those convicted of felonies are eligible to vote.
Florida Rights Restoration Coalition — the group that helped pass Amendment 4 — filed a brief last week with the appeals court that claimed it was “impossible” in some cases for ex-felons to even figure out how much they owed. The group has itself raised more than $2.3 million it is using to pay off fines and fees owed by ex-felons.
One study suggested that nearly 775,000 people with felon convictions have outstanding court debts that render them ineligible to vote in Florida.