Voting Rights in Florida: Amendment 4, Senate Bill 7066, and Jones v. Governor of Florida

Katie Friel, CLS ’21

On November 8, 2018, Florida passed Amendment 4 to its constitution, restoring the voting rights of the state’s ex-felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including parole or probation.[1] According to reports, Amendment 4 would make an estimated 1.4 million Floridians eligible to vote.[2] In a matter of months after Amendment 4’s passage, in June 2019, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066, which implemented the Amendment and interpreted its language of “completion of all terms of sentence” to include a requirement that a felon pay all fines, fees, and restitution associated with his sentence before any rights are restored.[3] The Supreme Court of Florida subsequently confirmed this interpretation of Amendment 4, ruling that the text of the Amendment required completion of all payments associated with an individual’s sentence as a precondition to re-enfranchisement.[4]

Almost immediately after the enactment of SB 7066, seventeen ex-felons in Florida filed suits in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of SB 7066’s “fines and fees” requirement.[5]  As the highest court in the state, the Florida Supreme Court’s prior interpretation of Amendment 4 is determinative;[6] therefore, the only question for the federal courts is whether SB 7066 and Amendment 4, so interpreted, violates the United States Constitution. The fines and fees requirement, plaintiffs argued in a consolidated action in the Northern District of Florida, is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because it punishes indigent citizens more harshly—by denying them the right to vote—than those who are able to pay their fines and fees.[7] Were it not for this requirement and their genuine inability to pay, plaintiffs argued, they would be eligible to vote under Amendment 4.[8] Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court granted plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction on October 18, 2019, enjoining the defendants from denying them access to the ballot box based solely on their inability to pay their fines and fees.[9]

Defendants subsequently appealed the district court’s injunctive relief, and, on February 19, 2020, the 11th Circuit issued its decision on the matter.[10] The Court of Appeals found that the fines and fees requirement disproportionally punishes those who are unable to pay, resulting in the loss of a fundamental right—that to vote.[11] Typically, felon disenfranchisement and re-enfranchisement schemes are subject to rational basis review[12]; however, there are instances that may call for stricter scrutiny. For example, though wealth is not typically a suspect class, as the circuit court noted, Supreme Court precedent suggests that wealth classifications may be subject to heightened scrutiny when “they are used to restrict access to the franchise and in the administration of criminal justice,” both of which apply in Jones[13]; further, heightened scrutiny traditionally applies when fundamental rights are implicated—fundamental rights such as the right to vote.[14] As such, the court found, an analysis of the fines and fees requirement warrants heightened scrutiny.[15] Applying this standard, the 11th Circuit found that the requirement likely violates the Equal Protection Clause as applied to the seventeen plaintiffs in the case.[16] Therefore, having also concluded that the plaintiffs would suffer irreparable injury in the absence of injunctive relief[17], that potential injury outweighs any harm to the defendants[18], and relief would be in the public interest[19], the court affirmed the district court’s preliminary injunction.[20]


[1] Jones v. Governor of Fla., 950 F.3d 795, 800 (11th Cir. 2020).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 803.

[5] Id. at 804.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 805.

[8] Id. at 804.

[9] Id. at 805.

[10] Id. at 800.

[11] Id. at 800.

[12] Id. at 823.

[13] Id. at 808.

[14] Id.

[15]  Id. (“Once a state provides an avenue to ending the punishment of disenfranchisement, it must do so consonant with the principles of equal protection, and it may not erect a wealth barrier absent a justification sufficient to overcome heightened scrutiny.”).

[16] Id. at 827.

[17] Id. at 828.

[18] Id. at 829-30.

[19] Id. at 830-31.

[20] Id. at 832-33.