Felon voting rights back in Federal court

Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 6:31 PM CDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE) - The fight to allow felons who are too poor to pay their court-ordered fines and fees continued in an Atlanta appellate court Thursday.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is pushing a novel argument that the state’s financial requirements disproportionately impact women of color and therefore violates the 19th Amendment.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Florida’s requirement that felons must pay all fines, fees, and restitution before being able to vote last September. The court ruled the financial obligations were a punishment for a crime, not a tax.

“We brought additional claims that go beyond just their wealth,” Nancy Abudu, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said.

Abudu is representing Rosemary McCoy and Shiela Singleton. According to court documents, the Jacksonville women owe a combined total of more than $24,000 in fees and restitution.

“It’s unrealistic in our clients’ situation,” Abudu said.

Attorneys are now making the case because women, particularly women of color, are less likely to be able to afford to pay, the Florida law violates the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote.

“You have one-fourth of Black women who are living below the poverty line. You have 43 percent of Black women who have a criminal conviction who are unemployed,” Abudu said.

The argument provides a rare opportunity for the courts to weigh in on the scope of the 19th Amendment, which has only been before the U.S. Supreme Court on two previous occasions.

Earlier in the case though, a District Court Judge rejected the 19th Amendment claims made by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the opinion, the judge argued the law has a greater impact on men, who are incarcerated at much higher rates.

But Abudu said that argument misses the point.

“He didn’t take into account the disproportionate number statistically of women who are in the criminal justice system and therefore face harder burdens,” Abudu said.

Plaintiffs hope the appellate court will strike down Florida’s law based on Thursday’s hearing or that it will at least send the case back to the district court to reconsider the 19th Amendment arguments.

SPLC attorneys pointed out the For the People Act, if passed by Congress, could moot the whole case because it would require felons’ voting rights be restored upon release from prison.