ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Florida's Republican governor on Friday asked the state's high court to rule on whether convicted felons must pay all fines and fees before getting their voting rights restored in a move that competes with ongoing litigation in federal court on that same question.
Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court justices to issue an opinion on whether felons must pay all fines and fees before they are eligible to register to vote. Requests for an advisory opinion from a Florida governor to the state Supreme Court are rare — the last one was about six years ago from then-Gov. Rick Scott.
Last year, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, restoring voting rights for felons other than convicted murderers and sex offenders. Before its passage, Florida was among only three states that permanently disenfranchised felons unless their rights were restored by a clemency board.
In response to Amendment 4's approval, the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature passed a bill this spring that requires felons to pay all fines and fees before their voting rights are restored. Amendment 4 supporters challenged the new law in federal court, saying it was an effort to keep hundreds of thousands of felons from registering to vote.
As many as 1.4 million felons could be eligible to vote under Amendment 4.
In his letter Friday, DeSantis asked the court for an opinion on whether the language in the amendment stating felons can get their voting rights restored upon "completion of all terms of sentence" includes fines and fees. The governor made clear his request is focused on the amendment, not the legislation that is being challenged in federal court.
"I, as governor of Florida, have the constitutional responsibility and duty to take care that the Constitution and laws of Florida are faithfully executed," DeSantis wrote. "I will not infringe on the proper restoration of an individual's right to vote under the Florida Constitution."
Last January, DeSantis remade the Florida Supreme Court with a conservative bent after appointing three justices to replace jurists who had who frequently ruled against the GOP-controlled state government. The outgoing justices faced mandatory retirement.
In their lawsuit, the Amendment 4 supporters said hundreds of thousands of Floridians would be denied the right to vote if they were unable to pay fines and fees. Earlier this month, they asked for a preliminary injunction that would stop the law from being enforced.
A study by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith estimated that less than 18% of Florida felons released from custody or supervision have paid off their fees and fines.
The new law "will wreak havoc on election administration, apply unequally to similarly situated voters, lead to the erroneous deprivation of the right to vote and undermine confidence in Florida elections," the Amendment 4 supporters said in court papers filed last week.
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