THE SUPREMES GET INVOLVED

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A battle over voting rights in Florida is playing out at the U.S. Supreme Court. At stake is the ability of hundreds of thousands of Florida’s ‘returning citizens’ to cast ballots in this year’s elections.

COURTESY OF THE U.S. SUPREME COURT

COMPILED FROM WIRE AND STAFF REPORTS

TALLAHASSEE – A battle over voting rights in Florida is playing out at the U.S. Supreme Court, with the ability of hundreds of thousands of Floridians convicted of criminal returning citizens who have served their judicial sentences – popularly known as “returning citizens” to cast ballots in this year’s elections at stake.

Attorneys for the state and voting-rights groups filed briefs this week at the Supreme Court as they continue wrangling over a challenge to a 2019 state law requiring returning citizens to pay “legal financial obligations” – fees, fines, costs and restitution – to be eligible to vote.

Voting-rights groups argue that linking voting rights and finances amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

Amendment 4 fallout

The state law was aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment known as Amendment 4 that restored voting rights to returning citizens “upon completion of all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.”

The voting-rights groups went to the Supreme Court last week after an Atlantabased appeals court put on hold a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who said the state cannot deny voting rights to returning citizens who cannot afford to pay court-ordered financial obligations associated with their convictions.

The plaintiffs are challenging the hold, saying it would block returning citizens from voting in the August primary elections and could prevent them from casting ballots in November.

DeSantis objects

But in a response filed Tuesday at the Supreme Court, lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis said the stay on Hinkle’s decision issued July 1 by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should remain intact.

The state will be “irreparably harmed” if Hinkle’s “patently erroneous injunction is reinstated, enabling hundreds of thousands of ineligible voters to take part in the upcoming elections, one of which is only a month away,” lawyers for DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee wrote.

Hinkle’s May decision, which said that depriving poor returning citizens of the right to vote is unconstitutional wealthbased discrimination, laid out a process for state elections officials to use to determine voters’ eligibility.

Under the procedure, hundreds of thousands of returning citizens who have served their time behind bars would be able to register and vote in the Aug. 18 and Nov. 3 elections without taking any additional action.

DeSantis appealed Hinkle’s ruling, and in an unusual move, the 11th Circuit agreed to what is known as an “en banc,” or full court, initial review of the case. Three-judge panels nearly always conduct initial reviews of appeals.

On hold for now

The Atlanta-based appellate court also put Hinkle’s ruling on hold, and scheduled oral arguments in the case for Aug. 18, the same day as Florida’s primary elections.

Asking the U.S. Supreme Court last week to vacate the stay, the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that blocking Hinkle’s ruling from going into effect “creates chaos and confusion about who can and cannot vote, where a wrong guess creates the risk of criminal prosecution.”

But in Tuesday’s response, DeSantis’ lawyers accused Hinkle of sowing disarray.

Important case

Both the state and votingrights groups have pointed to a previous Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Purcell v. Gonzalez establishing that election-related court orders can result in voter confusion and have a chilling effect on voter turnout. As elections draw close, “that risk is increased,” the justices held in the 2006 decision.

Putting Hinkle’s order on hold so close to the August primary has created that effect, the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.

“Not only has this thrown the election rules into chaos (with nearly one hundred thousand registered voters and three-quarters of a million citizens now uncertain of their eligibility to vote), it has revived the risk – and attendant chill – of prosecution for citizens who worry they will guess wrong about how much (if anything) they must pay to vote,” attorneys for the Campaign Legal Center wrote in last week’s Supreme Court filing, which was joined by other organizations that are plaintiffs in the case.

The plaintiffs also asked the Supreme Court “to reject the state’s merits arguments, which boil down to this: the Constitution has nothing to say about an electoral standard that requires payment of an amount of money the state cannot determine (with the threat of prosecution for a wrong guess), that vanishingly few can afford, and that is a tax by another name.”

Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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