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Supreme Court says Florida can enforce law limiting ex-felons who owe fines from voting

Thursday, July 16th, 2020: From CNN News 

The Supreme Court on Thursday said Florida can enforce a law barring ex-felons from voting if they still owe court fines or fees that they are unable to pay associated with their convictions.

The unsigned order likely means the law will be in effect for the November election, although the court did not declare the law to be unconstitutional or limit ongoing court challenges.

Liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissented.

"This Court's order prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida's primary election simply because they are poor," Sotomayor wrote in the dissent.

Visit CNN's Election Center for full coverage of the 2020 race."This Court's inaction continues a trend of condoning (disenfranchisement)," she added.

Over 1 million Floridians with prior felony convictions had their voting rights restored with a constitutional amendment passed in November 2018. Amendment 4, which allowed convicted felons who complete "all terms of sentence" the right to vote, passed with nearly 65% of the vote, exceeding the 60% threshold required.

After Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019, the GOP-led Florida Legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, a bill that clarified "all terms of sentence" to include legal financial obligations such as fines, fees and restitution.

The fees and fines that felons are ordered to pay are wide-ranging but significantly high for an individual leaving prison, especially if they're unemployed. They can range from a couple hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, Lisa Foster, the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a group that aims to eliminate fees in the US justice system, has told CNN. And in Florida, all the court charges that are unpaid after 90 days are referred to private debt collectors, who are allowed to add up to a 40% surcharge on the unpaid court debt, according to the Brennan Center.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in Atlanta blocked a judge's order from May that had cleared the way for hundreds of thousands of former felons in the state to register to vote.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with the Campaign Legal Center and other voting rights groups, filed an application last week asking the Supreme Court for an order overturning the appeals court's decision.

At the time, lawyers for DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, also a Republican, argued against the petition, saying that Floridians will be "irreparably harmed" if the district court'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."

CNN has reached out to DeSantis and Lee for comment.

Campaign Legal Center Vice President Paul Smith called the Supreme Court's decision Thursday "deeply disappointing." The center was one of multiple civil rights groups that filed the initial court challenges to the law.

"The Supreme Court stood by as the Eleventh Circuit prevented hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida's primary election simply because they can't afford to pay fines and fees," Smith said in a statement.

The appellate court set a hearing for the case on August 18 -- the same day as Florida's primary elections.

An attorney for the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, Julie Ebenstein, said the group is "hopeful" that the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals will uphold the May ruling that the law requiring fines to be paid first is unconstitutional, "protecting the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of Floridians in time for the November election."

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