The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Thursday to weigh in on a federal appeals court’s decision that blocked some Florida felons’ eligibility to participate in elections — a major blow to efforts to restore voting rights to as many as 1.4 million people in the battleground state.
Lawyers with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington petitioned the high court in early July after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta temporarily blocked a judge’s order that had cleared the way for hundreds of thousands of felons in the state to register to vote.
The organization argued that the appeals court decision had “thrown the election rules into chaos.”
But on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the request to lift the order. Three liberal justices dissented, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing that the court’s decision “prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor.”
Paul Smith, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center said he was “deeply disappointed” with the decision.
It’s unclear if the appeals court will resolve the issue in time for the November presidential election or if its final ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The lower court has scheduled a hearing on the issue for Aug. 18 — the same day as Florida’s primary election.
The reenfranchisement of felons in Florida has been a contentious issue in the swing state since voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018. The amendment — supported by more than 65 percent of voters — cleared the way for most felons, except those who had been convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, to register to vote.
An estimated 85,000 felons have registered since Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019. Previously, Florida had been one of a handful of states that barred felons from voting for life.
A law signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last year appeared to thwart the potential reach of Amendment 4, adding a requirement that fines, fees and restitution be paid first. Without a system in place to help them get the information, felons were left on their own to find out if or how much they owe.
That created “an administrative nightmare,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said when he ruled against the state in May, finding that the law requiring felons to pay fines and fees amounted to an unconstitutional voting tax.
Lawyers for the government, meanwhile, argued in their response to the Supreme Court that proponents of Amendment 4 had actively campaigned for its passage with the proviso that it “could” give felons a second chance “upon payment of fines, fees and restitution.”
“Supporters of the amendment, including the Brennan Center (counsel for Applicants), knew that felon reenfranchisement ‘polls higher’ in Florida when payment of financial punishment was required, and that there would be a ‘harder fight to win 60% + 1% approval’ required to amend the Florida Constitution without that requirement,” the lawyers wrote.
In numerous voting-related cases decided near election dates, the Supreme Court has declined to intervene, citing the Purcell Principle, a legal doctrine arising from the 2006 Purcell v. Gonzalez case. In that case, the high court ruled that “court orders affecting elections, especially conflicting orders, can themselves result in voter confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls. As an election draws closer, that risk will increase.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis said earlier this month that because it is an ongoing legal matter, his office will not comment until there is a ruling by the appeals court.
Voting rights activists, meanwhile, worried that the uncertainty of the issue may discourage “returned citizens” from trying to register even if they’re eligible.
Hinkle’s ruling in May ordered the state to tell felons whether they are eligible to vote and what they owe, and if they don’t get an answer from the state within 21 days, they can register to vote.
In the legal twists and turns over this issue, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit court, which leans conservative, has twice agreed with Hinkle, a President Bill Clinton appointee. But the state’s latest appeal to the full circuit resulted in a freeze of his order until after the August hearing.
“My heart went out to the countless number of returned citizens who were looking forward to participating in an election maybe for the first time, or the first time in a long time,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “To see their hopes dashed like that, because of politics, that really brought me to tears.”
Meade spent three years in prison on a drug charge. He registered to vote in January 2019 and later found out he still owed about $1,000 in fines, fees and restitution. He paid them, and plans to vote in August for the first time in 30 years.
His group is helping others pay their fines if they can’t afford it, but they can’t reach all felons in the state, and sometimes finding out if they owe anything is difficult, even with the help of pro bono attorneys who are working with the group.
Rozsa reported from Broward County, Fla.
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