Advisory Opinion: Implementation of Amendment 4, The Voting Restoration Amendment
In a 4-1 decision, the majority ruled that the average voter would have interpreted the words "all terms of sentence" in the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative amendment to include fines and fees (LFOs). The ruling reads:
"... our opinion is based not on the Sponsor’s subjective intent or campaign statements, but rather on the objective meaning of the constitutional text. ... the phrase 'all terms of sentence,' ... has an ordinary meaning that the voters would have understood to refer not only to durational periods but also to all LFOs imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt."
The majority only considered the words of the amendment. They said none of the other evidence provided influenced their decision, it only coincidentally supported their decision. This theory is called textualism, also known as the supremacy-of-text principle. Several pages are dedicated to the meaning of the words themselves, for example:
- terms: The American Heritage dictionary defines terms as "either to multiple durational periods or to multiple obligations or conditions". They note that in context, they read it as referring to time and obligations/conditions.
- all terms: Opponents argue that because the amendment explicitly mentions time-related "parole or probation", this phrase should only apply to time. The majority disagrees because it follows the word "including".
- sentence: Made up of a single time-related "term" that can have more than one obligation/condition. They note that the amendment explicitly references “parole or probation” and used the word "sentence" to indicate more than being imprisoned. This Court has previously referred to restitution and fines as part of a sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has also referred to fines as part of a sentence.
- all terms of: the majority argues this phrase would be unnecessary if it is not referring to more than "parole or probation".
The majority points out that they have found examples in other courts where “all terms of sentence” to refer to obligations. They find no reason within Amendment 4 that would narrow the phrase to exclude LFOs.
Partial Dissent: Justice Labarga
"I concur with the majority’s ultimate decision ... . I do not concur, however, with the majority’s conclusion that the phrase ... “has an ordinary meaning that the voters would have understood” to include LFOs. [Or] with the majority’s strict [use] of the theory referred to as the “supremacy-of-text principle” to the exclusion of available extrinsic evidence..."
While Labarga agreed with the outcome, he did not agree with how the majority came to their decision. He is not as sure that voters would have understood the phrase to include fines and fees, and he disagrees with the strict application of textualism, to the point of excluding all evidence.
The majority disregards this Court's long history of looking to the intent of the petition's sponsor and/or voter to understand its meaning. Labarga doesn't have an issue with reviewing the text, but also considers the intent of the sponsor to determine its meaning:
- During oral arguments, the petition's sponsor agreed that the intent was to require full payment of any fines and restitution.
- The sponsor's written brief says the intent was for individuals to regain their right to vote after "all obligations imposed under their criminal sentence".
- The sponsor's website aimed at voters also said rights would be restored for those "who fully complete their entire sentence – including any probation, parole, and restitution".
- The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida’s 2018 voter guide also specified it would include "any probation, parole, fines, or restitution.”
The majority dismissed all this evidence as merely being consistent with their findings, when Labarga feels the evidence "resolves any question" of the phrase's meaning.
Labarga argues that textualism becomes even less reliable when the text is not fully developed. There is no real way to determine how a voter would have understood the 4 words by just analyzing the text. Referring to evidence is essential when interpreting ambiguous text.
Ultimately, he concurs with the findings that LFOs are included in the sentence. He says if not for the evidence he reviewed, he could not have concurred in this case with the majority's outcome solely based on a textualist interpretation. He worries that this ruling will set a precedent to exclude relevant evidence.
In 2018, 64.55% of voters passed Amendment 4, also known as the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative. It automatically restores the right to vote for Floridians with prior felony convictions when their sentence is completed. It did not include those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.
After the amendment was approved by voters, Governor Ron DeSantis requested a law from the Legislature to implement the amendment. In 2019, a law was passed which requires payment of "'all fines and fees' associated with their sentence" before restoring voting rights.
In addition to this Florida Supreme Court opinion, there have been other lawsuits in federal court. Opponents say the law violates amendment(s) to the U.S. Constitution.
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