A federal appeals court issued a ruling Wednesday in favor of ex-felons challenging a Florida law that restricted their right to vote.
After voters approved a measure to allow ex-felons to vote upon completion of their sentences, the state legislature passed a law that interpreted this to include payment of all legal financial obligations (LFOs), such as fines, fees and restitution. A group of 17 ex-felons sued, claiming this requirement is unconstitutional, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court preliminary injunction that allowed them to register to vote if they showed they were unable to pay, and had completed all other requirements.
"Because the LFO requirement punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can," the court's ruling said, "Supreme Court precedent leads us to apply heightened scrutiny in asking whether the requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to these plaintiffs."
The three-judge panel upheld the injunction -- blocking the enforcement of the LFO requirement for the duration of the case -- saying that the requirement does indeed violate the Equal Protection Clause because it constitutes wealth discrimination.
"Here, these plaintiffs are punished more harshly than those who committed precisely the same crime—by having their right to vote taken from them likely for their entire lives," the court said. "And this punishment is linked not to their culpability, but rather to the exogenous fact of their wealth."
The court recognized that Florida would be permitted to keep all felons from voting, as they had done in the past, but said they do not have a valid interest in restricting some but not others based on ability to pay.
"Whatever interest the State may have in punishment, this interest is surely limited to a punishment that is applied in proportion to culpability," the ruling said.
For those reasons, the court determined that the ex-felons were "substantially likely to succeed on the merits" and stated that the lower court acted properly within its discretion determining that they would suffer irreparable harm if the law remained in place.