The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a request by Florida voters and civil rights groups to reinstate a ruling that would have cleared the way for thousands of Florida residents who have been convicted of a felony to vote in the state’s upcoming elections. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the ruling, writing an opinion that was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
At the heart of the dispute is a 2018 amendment to Florida’s constitution that permits people with prior felony convictions to vote once they complete “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” In 2019, the state’s legislature passed a law that required residents who have been convicted of a felony to pay all court costs, fees and fines before they can become eligible to vote. Voters challenged the 2019 law, setting off a series of proceedings that culminated in Thursday’s order by the Supreme Court.
A federal district court in Florida initially blocked the state from enforcing the 2019 law on the ground that it discriminates on the basis of wealth. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld that ruling in February. In May, after a full trial, the district court issued a new ruling holding that the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s 24th Amendment, which bars poll taxes. The district court also concluded that because it could take years for the state to figure out how much residents with past convictions must pay to be eligible to vote, the law will discourage voters from registering at all, because they will be afraid that they will be charged with fraud if they make a mistake. Florida returned to the 11th Circuit; this time the court of appeals granted the state’s request to have the full court weigh in, and it put the district court’s ruling on hold until it could rule on the state’s appeal.
The voters went to the Supreme Court on July 8, asking the justices to lift the 11th Circuit’s stay and reinstate the district court’s ruling. Because the deadline to register for the state’s August primary election is July 20, the voters stressed, the 11th Circuit’s order putting the trial court’s ruling on hold has created “chaos and confusion about who can and cannot vote, where a wrong guess creates the risk of criminal prosecution.”
In a filing on Tuesday, the state urged the justices to leave the stay in place. It was the district court’s May order barring the state from enforcing the 2019 law, rather than the 11th Circuit’s July 1 stay, the state argued, that violated the Supreme Court’s “repeated admonition” that lower courts should normally not change the rules of an election in the run-up to that election. The stay, the state contended, “actually quells the chaos created by the district court’s unprecedented injunction.”
In a brief unsigned order on Thursday, the justices denied the voters’ request to lift the 11th Circuit’s stay. In her dissent, Sotomayor complained that the order “prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor.” This case, Sotomayor argued, meets all of the standards to lift a stay entered by an appeals court. Because the 2019 law will prevent “nearly a million” people from voting, she contended, it is “exceptionally important” and therefore “likely to warrant” the justices’ review. There is no question that those voters will be irreparably harmed if they cannot or do not vote because of the 11th Circuit’s “conflicting orders or Florida’s threat of prosecution,” Sotomayor continued. Moreover, not only was the 11th Circuit’s decision wrong, but its stay “has created that very ‘confusion’ and voter chill” that the Supreme Court’s cases counsel against.
More broadly, Sotomayor observed, the Supreme Court’s failure to intervene in this case “continues a trend of condoning disenfranchisement.” “Ironically,” she noted, the Supreme Court relied on the rule against making changes close to an election – known as the Purcell principle – “as a reason to forbid courts to make voting safer during a pandemic, overriding two federal courts because any safety-related changes supposedly came too close to election day.” But, she wrote, “faced with an appellate court stay that disrupts a legal status quo and risks immense disenfranchisement – a situation that Purcell sought to avoid – the Court balks.”
Oral argument in the 11th Circuit is scheduled for Aug. 18, the same day as the state’s primary election. In a statement issued shortly after the court’s order on Thursday, Paul Smith of the Campaign Legal Center, which represented the voters in the case, described the ruling as “deeply disappointing” but indicated that the voters would continue the challenge “to fight for Florida voters so they can participate in the General Election in November.”
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.