September 18, 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

TALLAHASSEE, FL – Today, Fair Elections Center and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC filed a brief with the Supreme Court of Florida arguing that under the Florida Constitution as amended by Amendment 4, people with felony convictions do not need to pay administrative costs and fees to regain their voting rights. These costs fund the criminal justice system, but do not serve as punishment and are not part of the criminal sentence.   

In November 2018, Floridians passed Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to people with felony convictions who have completed “all terms of sentence.” Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature enacted SB 7066 which, in part, requires felons who seek voting rights restoration to pay some, but not all, costs and fees assessed against them. The brief filed today by the Center and Cohen Milstein focuses on this aspect of the law and argues it violates the Florida Constitution, because costs and fees are not “terms of sentence.”

The brief states:

Amendment 4, the voting rights restoration amendment approved last year, was not adopted in a vacuum.  Its terms, and the preexisting laws and procedures to which they refer, had concrete meaning at the time Florida’s voters overwhelmingly endorsed the restoration of voting rights to felons who had completed “all terms of sentence.”  Accordingly, when SB 7066 was enacted, the Florida Legislature did not—and could not—write on a blank slate…

SB 7066 requires the payment of some, but not all, costs and fees that are assessed against a convicted felon and used to fund various aspects of Florida’s criminal justice system . . . But costs and fees bear none of the hallmarks of sentencing: (1) they are non-punitive and simply serve to compensate the government for the costs of administering criminal justice; (2) they do not vary proportionately with the seriousness of the offense or the offender’s criminal history; and (3) they are neither triggered nor supported by findings of fact… The history, original intent, enabling statutes, and past and current implementation of Florida’s costs and fees all compel the conclusion that these assessed costs and fees… do not serve as punishment for convicted felons as part of the criminal sentence.  

[I]f this Court were to conclude that costs and fees are punitive “terms of sentence” within the meaning of Article VI, Section 4 . . ., that decision would open a Pandora’s box of constitutional challenges.  If costs and fees were found to be terms of sentence intended to punish the convicted, then the federal and state Ex Post Facto Clauses would prohibit the retroactive application of new costs and fees and the retroactive increase of court costs and fees.  Such a decision would work to the detriment of Florida’s ability to finance the administration of criminal justice in the long term, as only the costs and fees in existence at the time of the defendant’s crime could be applied and only in the amounts then in effect.       

The full text of the brief can be found here.

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Over the last two and a half years, Fair Elections Center and their local counsel at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC have litigated in federal court a First and Fourteenth Amendment challenge to Florida’s arbitrary voting rights restoration system, Hand v. Scott.

Fair Elections Center is a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization which works to remove barriers to registration and voting for traditionally underrepresented constituencies. The Center works to improve election administration through legislative, legal and administrative reform, to protect access to the ballot through litigation, and to provide election law expertise, voter information and technical assistance to voter mobilization organizations.

Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC is recognized as one of the premier law firms in the country handling major, complex plaintiff-side litigation. With more than 90 attorneys, Cohen Milstein has offices in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Ill., New York, N.Y., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Philadelphia, Pa., and Raleigh, N.C.  For additional information call 561.515.1400.