Judge warns lawsuits may be ahead on felon voting rights

Florida lawmakers have approved a plan that would make felons repay all fines and fees before they can vote

The Florida Legislature approved its implantation plan for Amendment 4, requiring felons to pay all court fees, fines, and restitution before getting their right to vote back.

In November, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which supports said would automatically return the right to vote to felons after they finished their sentence. However, under the plan passed by the legislature on Friday, felons would also have to pay off all fines and fees, something that could keep thousands of felons from getting their rights back.

The bill does offer three avenues for felons to settle their fees: pay them off, have a judge dismiss the fees, or have a judge convert the fees into community service.

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Judges say, the last two paths are not practical.

“I do think the legislature may be treading into that territory of bad law,” says former Chief Judge Belvin Perry. "After 60 after a sentence becomes final the court loses jurisdiction to modify a sentence, so after 60 days it is a done deal.”

The 60-day rule could be modified by the Florida Supreme Court, according to Perry.

Defending their decision to include all fines, fees, and restitution, legislators point at what attorney Jon Mills said before the Florida Supreme Court in March of 2017 when he presented the restoration of rights amendment before the court. In an exchange with Justice Ricky Polston.

In that exchange Mills said completion would include anything that a judge puts into a sentence, prompting Justice Polston to ask, “So that would include any fines?  With Mills responding, “Yes sir.”

While that exchange may be the basis for the legislation passed by the Florida Legislature, Perry says questions remain about scope and intent.

“You have to look at the intent of Amendment Four, the intent of the amendment was that felons would be able to go in and get their rights restored if they me the conditions,” says Perry.  “What we have now is the legislature by legislation adding things to the constitutional amendment, the question that will have to be answered by the Florida Supreme Court is ‘can they do it, or can they not do it’ and that is going to be the million dollar question.”