MIAMI — One by one, they came before the judge in Miami, confident that in a few moments they would get a precious document clearing the way for them to get the right to vote.
The signed court order confirmed that, for the purposes of voter registration, they did not owe any court fines, fees or costs from their past felony convictions. The 18 people on the docket, some of them previously disenfranchised for decades, were clearing the final hurdle imposed by the state of Florida to restore their voting eligibility.
The packed courtroom burst into applause when Judge Nushin G. Sayfie told Carmen Brown, the first person called to the lectern, that she was granting her motion. Ms. Brown, 64, had served time for multiple felony convictions, including armed robbery with a deadly weapon. She put her hands to her mouth as tears welled in her eyes.
“Thank you so much,” she said through sniffles. “Thank you, your honor.”
A year ago, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure known as Amendment 4, restoring the voting rights of up to 1.5 million people with felony records. But earlier this year, the Republican-controlled State Legislature imposed restrictions requiring former felons — some of whom prefer to be called “returning citizens” — to first pay back outstanding legal financial obligations. In some cases, those amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
Several Florida counties have taken steps to create “rocket dockets” to speed petitions for fee relief through the court system, enabling former felons to obtain certification that they have no pending financial penalties.
Florida’s progress in restoring voting rights to those formerly incarcerated is being watched across the country, but the legal path forward has become increasingly murky.
The restrictions imposed by the Legislature were challenged in court, and a federal judge decided last month to temporarily block the law, at least for the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit who said they could not afford to pay their legal debts. But who is protected by the injunction and for how long remains unclear.
Separately, the Florida Supreme Court held oral arguments this week on a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, for an advisory opinion clarifying the scope of Amendment 4 ahead of the 2020 elections. Amendment 4 does not restore voting rights to people convicted of murder or felony sex offenses.
In the meantime, a handful of elected Democratic state attorneys in some of the state’s biggest counties — beginning with Miami-Dade, the largest of all — have tried to find ways to make it easier for people with felony convictions to become eligible to vote under the existing restrictions.
African-Americans in the state have been disproportionately disenfranchised, and some Democrats see the potential to register thousands of new voters who might lean their way in Florida’s tight elections.
County prosectors’ efforts have received praise from civil rights groups and Amendment 4 proponents, who see support from local officials as crucial to getting former felons back onto the voter rolls.
But the local approach also seems likely to result in a patchwork system where a person with a felony record in one county may have a much different path to clearing their legal debts than a person in another county.
“It’s encouraging that state attorneys, public defenders, judges — a lot of people — are doing everything they can to make voting accessible to those who are entitled to automatic restoration,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, which was one of the groups that challenged the Legislature’s restrictions.
The problem, she said, is that “until there’s a uniform statewide system that ensures that people aren’t disenfranchised because they can’t afford to pay, then there’s an unconstitutional system in place.”
Howard Finkelstein, the public defender in Broward County, said that few people with felony convictions have queried his office about how to work around the Amendment 4 restrictions.
“That’s mostly because everybody’s confused — including myself,” said Mr. Finkelstein, a 42-year veteran of the office who has been the elected public defender for the past 15 years. “The whole thing is a legal mess.”
The burden of helping restore ex-felons’ rights should not fall on judicial circuits whose resources are too taxed to handle an influx of individual legal debt modification requests, Ms. Ebenstein said.
Among the problems is that the state has no system to easily track legal financial obligations. Searching for sentencing orders and judgments in older cases requires going back to files kept on microfilm, said Carlos J. Martinez, the public defender in Miami-Dade County.
Andrew H. Warren, the state attorney in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is, said that his ability to put a procedure in place for ex-felons to follow has been complicated by the ongoing challenges to the law and its restrictions, which have created a moving target.
“It’s really just distinguishing between people who have not paid and people who are unable to pay,” Mr. Warren said. “If you’re unable to pay and you’ve otherwise completed the terms of your sentence, we’re creating a judicial process to check that. There’s a lack of infrastructure to check these things.”
In Palm Beach County, the state attorney, Dave Aronberg, announced on Thursday that the county will try to make it easier for former felons to regain their voting rights by putting all fines and court costs in separate files that are not associated with their sentences and parole terms.
Katherine Fernández Rundle, the Miami-Dade state attorney, unveiled her fast-track processing system, which includes the “rocket docket” hearings, in July. Applicants are divided among those without outstanding debts, those with debts but facing an inability to pay, and those looking to get on a debt payment plan.
More than 100 qualified applications for relief from former prisoners in Miami-Dade County came in through the website of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which put Amendment 4 on the ballot. The county public defender’s office reviewed its own cases — about 450 of them — and identified the 18 people placed on Friday’s docket who did not have any outstanding debts associated with their criminal cases.
Another 10 or so applicants did have outstanding fines and fees, including three people who owe just $40 each. Volunteer lawyers have taken on the cases, said Mr. Martinez, the public defender.
The numbers remain tiny compared to what activists hoped to achieve with automatic voting rights restoration. But that did not take away from the joy that 17 people — the 18th was absent — displayed on Friday, surrounded by loved ones who had joined them in court for the unusually celebratory occasion.
Dolce Bastien, 44, showed up in a three-piece suit after having driven seven hours from Jacksonville, where he now lives. He brought his father, Dulce Bastien, to share how he had turned his life around since getting convicted of attempted second-degree murder and first-degree arson when he was 19.
“It’s a proud day for myself and my father — born in Haiti, he’s 84 years old — to see me get my rights restored,” said the younger Mr. Bastien, who is now a dialysis technician but has never cast a ballot.
Mr. Bastien sat next to Ms. Brown, the woman who had gotten emotional when the judge called her name. They held their respective court orders, staring at them with giddy disbelief.
Ms. Brown said she would frame hers. Then, a volunteer handed her a clipboard. It held a voter registration form.
The post Cheers in Court as Ex-Felons Clear Final Hurdle to Vote appeared first on New York Times.