(CNN)A legal challenge against a Florida law that requires former felons to pay back all legal financial obligations before they vote is now a class action lawsuit.
On Tuesday, the federal judge overseeing the case granted class certification to the lawsuit, paving the way for any final decision issued, following a trial in late April, to apply not just to the original 17 plaintiffs but to all Florida felons.
US District Court Judge Robert Hinkle’s final ruling would extend to over 430,000 felons who would be eligible to vote but for unpaid financial obligations. Convicted felons in Florida had their voting rights restored with a constitutional amendment passed in November 2018. After Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019, the GOP-led Florida legislature passed a bill that clarified all terms of sentence to include legal financial obligations such as fines, fees and restitution.
Hinkle’s order on Tuesday granting class certification is another setback for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the bill into law last year. CNN has reached out to DeSantis and Lee’s offices for comment.
The Campaign Legal Center, who sued on the behalf of three Floridians with prior felony convictions, sought class certification last fall on the claims that the law discriminates on wealth and imposes a poll tax.
Though the governor and secretary of state have yet to respond to Tuesday’s announcement, the state officials back in November objected, arguing in part that it’s unnecessary, too broad and “plaintiffs have not met their burden to define the proposed wealth-based discrimination subclass.”
They argued in a court document that certification based on wealth is “problematic, ill defined, and requires hundreds of thousands (up to as many as one million) of determinations regarding which former felons are ‘genuinely unable to pay’ their outstanding financial obligations.” The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a main backer of Amendment 4 that has remained out of the legal fray, called Hinkle’s Tuesday decision a “major victory in the fight to restore voting rights to Florida’s returning citizens.”
“The decision by the court to certify this case as a class action is a big deal because it drastically expands the number of people who can get immediate relief from 17 to hundreds of thousands,” the group’s executive director Desmond Meade said in a statement. The classification is the latest legal hurdle in an ongoing clash between voting rights advocates and Florida Republican lawmakers over the restoration of felon voting rights.
In October, Hinkle granted a preliminary injunction, allowing the plaintiffs to register to vote regardless of fines and fees associated with their convictions. A US appeals court upheld the judge’s decision in February.
“The state, however, continues to insist that these rulings apply only to the individual Floridians who are participating in this lawsuit,” the Campaign Legal Center said in a statement. “(Tuesday’s) ruling ensures that practice must come to an end.”
“Two federal courts announced a constitutional principle: no one can be denied the right to vote for failing to pay something they cannot afford. There should never have been a question as to whether that constitutional principle should apply to all Floridians,” Sean Morales-Doyle, the senior counsel for the Brennan Center, another plaintiff in the case, said in a statement.
The case goes to trial on April 27, after previously being delayed due to coronavirus concerns. The trial will be held remotely and by video conference to adhere to the social distancing guidelines in place. During a Wednesday pretrial hearing, the judge and lawyers tested their video conference capabilities and walked through logistics of the upcoming trial. The public is allowed to listen in via phone.
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