Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

En Banc Eleventh Circuit: Okay to Condition Restoration of Felons’ Voting Rights on Satisfaction of Criminal Sentence

In a ruling today in Jones v. Governor of Florida, the en banc Eleventh Circuit held, by a 6-4 vote, held that Florida law that conditions the restoration of a felon’s voting rights on his paying all fines, fees, and restitution imposed as part of his sentence does not violate any of various federal constitutional provisions.

The court divided along ideological lines. Chief judge William Pryor wrote the majority opinion, which was joined in whole or in large part by Judges Kevin Newsom, Elizabeth Branch, Britt Grant, Robert Luck, and Barbara Lagoa. (Pp. 1-60.) Lagoa wrote a concurring opinion (pp. 62-80), and Pryor also wrote a one-page concurring opinion (p. 61), joined by Lagoa, responding to an assertion in the dissents. Judges Beverly Martin (pp. 81-96), Adalberto Jordan (pp. 97-189), and Jill Pryor (pp. 190-200) each wrote a dissent and joined each other’s dissents. Judge Charles Wilson joined all three dissents.

I haven’t had time yet to read through the competing opinions. (In an earlier phase of the case back in February, I found very puzzling an Eleventh Circuit panel’s holding that the condition that a felon satisfy the financial terms of his sentence somehow violated the Equal Protection Clause, and I expressed my hope for en banc review of that holding.) For now, I will present some excerpts from the majority opinion on the Equal Protection claim and invite interested readers to work their way through that opinion and the dissents:

The only classification at issue is between felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including financial terms, and those who have not. This classification does not turn on membership in a suspect class: the requirement that felons complete their sentences applies regardless of race, religion, or national origin. Because this classification is not suspect, we review it for a rational basis only….

[The Florida provisions] are markedly different from the poll tax in Harper [v. Virginia Bd. of Elections (1966)]. They do not make affluence or the payment of a fee an “electoral standard.” They instead impose a different electoral standard: to regain the right to vote, felons, rich and poor, must complete all terms of their criminal sentences. Unlike the poll tax in Harper, that requirement is highly relevant to voter qualifications. It promotes full rehabilitation of returning citizens and ensures full satisfaction of the punishment imposed for the crimes by which felons forfeited the right to vote….

The people of Florida could rationally conclude that felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including paying their fines, fees, costs, and restitution, are more likely to responsibly exercise the franchise than those who have not. If a State may decide that those who commit serious crimes are presumptively unfit for the franchise, it may also conclude that those who have completed their sentences are the best candidates for reenfranchisement.

Seems quite straightforward to me.

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