Judge Robert Hinkle, a Bill Clinton appointed federal judge in Florida ruled Sunday that the state’s law restricting felons from voting if they have unpaid court fees or other fines was unconstitutional.
Per Wikipedia, Hinkle was nominated by President Bill Clinton on June 6, 1996, to a seat vacated by William H. Stafford, Jr. of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
Per ABCNews, the 125-page ruling was issued by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee.
It involves aapproved by voters to automatically restore the right to vote for many felons who have completed their sentence. The Republican-led Legislature stipulated that fines and legal fees must be paid as part of the sentence, in addition to serving any prison time.
Hinkle has acknowledged he is unlikely to have the last word in the case, expecting the administration of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis to launch an appeal.
The case could have deep ramifications in the crucial electoral battleground given that Florida has an estimated 774,000 disenfranchised felons who are barred because of financial obligations. Many of those felons are African Americans and presumably Democrats, though it’s unclear how that group of Floridians overall would lean politically in an election and how many would vote.
The judge called the Florida rules a “pay to vote” system that is unconstitutional when applied to felons “who are otherwise eligible to vote but are genuinely unable to pay the required amount.”
A further complication is determining the exact amount in fines and other kinds of legal fees owed by felons seeking the vote – by some estimates it would take elections officials several years for those pending now. Hinkle said it’s unconstitutional to bar any voter whose amount owed could not be “determined with diligence.”
Hinkle ordered the state to require election officials to allow felons to request an advisory opinion on how much they owe – essentially placing the burden on elections officials to seek that information from court systems. If there’s no response within three weeks, then the applicant should not be barred from registering to vote, the ruling said.
Hinkle said the requirement to pay fines and restitution as ordered in a sentence is constitutional for those “who are able to pay” – if the amount can be determined.
The case, Kelvin Jones vs Ron DeSantis, consolidates five lawsuits filed by advocates of disenfranchised felons, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.