- On Wednesday, a federal appeals court in Florida upheld an injunction on a law that bans felons from voting if they haven’t paid their legal fees.
- In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence.
- Then, in 2019, Florida’s legislature and Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law mandating former felons to pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.
- With the help of voting rights groups, 17 felons sued DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn this law.
- The latest ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, but it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons who wish to vote.
A federal appeals court in Florida said on Wednesday that for now, felons can no longer be barred from voting if they haven’t paid fines or fees from their cases.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction of a state law that requires convicted felons to settle all legal fines and fees before they are able to get reinstated to vote. The panel agreed to suspend the law until there’s a final ruling on it.
The decision of the appeals court only applies to the 17 felons who sued Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn the law. The plaintiffs and the voting rights groups that represent them argued that the legislation equates to an unfair poll tax.
The appeals court judges agreed, and said that the legal financial obligations (LFOs) law “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can—and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box.”
While Wednesday’s ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons. A trial for the plaintiffs is still pending but slated to begin in April, and that’s when the overall constitutionality of the LFO law will be decided.
“This is a tremendous win for our clients and for our democracy,” Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, told NBC.
Background on Felon Voting Restrictions
Until recently, Florida automatically prohibited all felons from the right to vote ever again. This changed in late 2018 when an overwhelming majority of Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence. Those with murder or felony sex convictions were exempt from this change.
The passing of Amendment 4 restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people.
Last year, the Republican-led legislature and Gov. DeSantis passed the law that mandated that former felons pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.
Supporters of the LFO law argued that Amendment 4 was not meant to restore voting rights for all felons, but only those who have “paid their debt to society,” including monetary fees.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, the Communications Director for DeSantis, responded to the Wednesday decision in a tweet.
“We disagree and will appeal en banc,” Ferré said.
Looking Ahead to 2020 Election
The recent ruling is especially significant as the 2020 presidential election approaches. Wednesday’s decision means that the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are eligible to vote in Florida’s presidential primary next month, though other felons with outstanding legal fines or fees are still not.
However, it is possible that by the end of the upcoming April trial, the legal financial requirement law will be deemed unconstitutional, which will allow all Florida felons to vote whether or not they’ve paid the fines and fees from their cases. But if that’s the case, DeSantis and the defendants are still likely to appeal that ruling as well to a higher court.
It is unclear how this is all going to end. Some believe that the courts will move quickly to get it settled before the 2020 election, but the timeline is not fully set. Many expect that this particular case could be taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately be decided on there.
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NBC) (Wall Street Journal)
Supreme Court Begins Contentious New Term as Approval Rating Hits Historic Low
The most volatile cases the court will consider involve affirmative action, voting rights, elections, and civil rights for the LGBTQ+ community.
High Court to Hear Numerous Controversial Cases
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday officially kicked off a new term that will be marked by a number of very contentious cases.
The justices, led by a conservative super-majority, will hear many matters that have enormous implications for the American people.
The first case the court will hear this term involves a major environmental dispute that will determine the scope of government authority under the Clean Water Act — a decision that could have a massive impact on U.S. water quality at a time when water crises’ have been heightened by climate change.
The case also comes amid increasing concerns about federal inaction regarding climate change, especially after the Supreme Court significantly limited the government’s power to act in this area at the end of its last term.
Cases Involving Race
Several of the most anticipated decisions also center around race, including a pair of cases that challenge affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.
For over four decades, the high court has repeatedly upheld that race can be a factor in college admissions to ensure a more equitable student body. Despite the fact that multiple challenges have been struck down in the past, the court’s conservative super majority could very well undo 40 years of precedent and undermine essential protections.
The high court will decide a legal battle that could significantly damage key voting protections for minorities set forth under the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The case in question stems from a lower court opinion that invalidated Alabama’s congressional map for violating a provision in the VRA prohibiting voting rules that discriminate on the basis of race.
Alabama had drawn its map so only one of its seven congressional districts was majority Black, despite the fact that nearly one in every three voting-age residents in the state are Black.
States’ Power Over Elections
Also on the topic of gerrymandering and elections, the justices will hear a case that could have a profound impact on the very nature of American democracy. The matter centers around a decision by the North Carolina Supreme Court to strike down the Republican-drawn congressional map on the grounds that it amounted to an illegal gerrymander that violated the state’s Constitution.
The North Carolina GOP appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause gives state legislatures almost total control over how federal elections are carried out in their state under a theory called the independent state legislature doctrine.
“That argument, in its most extreme form, would mean that [sic] no state court and no state agency could interfere with the state legislature’s version of election rules, regardless of the rules set down in the state constitution,” NPR explained.
In other words, if the Supreme Court sides with the North Carolina Republicans, they would essentially be giving state legislatures unchecked power over how voting maps are designed and elections are administered.
Another notable decision the justices will make could have huge implications for the LGBTQ+ community and civil rights more broadly. That matter involved a web designer in Colorado named Lori Smith who refused to design websites for same-sex couples because she believed it violates her right to religious freedoms.
That belief, however, goes against a Colorado nondiscrimination law that bans businesses that serve the public from denying their services to customers based on sexual orientation or identity.
As a result, Smith argues that the Colorado law violates the right to free speech under the First Amendment. If the high court rules in her favor, it would undermine protections for the LGBTQ+ community in Colorado and likely other states with similar laws.
Experts also say such a ruling could go far beyond that. As Georgetown University’s Kelsi Corkran told NPR, “if Smith is correct that there’s a free speech right to selectively choose her customers based on the messages she wants to endorse,” the Colorado law would also allow white supremacists to deny services to people of color because that “would be a message of endorsement.”
Record-Low Approval Rating
The court’s high-stakes docket also comes at a time when its reputation has been marred by questions of legitimacy.
A new Gallup poll published last week found that the Supreme Court’s approval rating has sunk to a record low. Specifically, less than half of Americans said they have at least a “fair amount” of trust in the judicial branch — a 20% drop from just two years ago.
Beyond that, a record number of people also now say that the court is too conservative. Experts argue that these numbers are massively consequential, especially as the U.S. heads into yet another highly-contentious court term.
“The Supreme Court is at an important moment,” Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs told The Hill.
“Trust in the institutions has vastly diminished, certainly among Democrats, and many have a close eye on how they rule on other vital matters. If decisions seem to keep coming from a very pointed political direction, frustration and calls for reform will only mount.”
See what others are saying: (The Hill) (CNN) (The Wall Street Journal)
Biden Mistakenly Calls Out For Dead Lawmaker at White House Event
The remarks prompted concerns about the mental state of the president, who previously mourned the congresswoman’s death in an official White House statement.
Video of President Joe Biden publicly asking if a congresswoman who died last month was present at a White House event went viral Wednesday, giving rise to renewed questions about the leader’s mental acuity.
The remarks were made at the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health, which Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-In.) had helped convene and organize before her sudden death in a car accident.
The president thanked the group of bipartisan lawmakers who helped make the event happen, listing them off one by one, and appearing to look around in search of Rep. Walorski when he reached her name.
“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” he called. “I think she wasn’t going to be here to help make this a reality.”
The incident flummoxed many, especially because Biden had even acknowledged her work on the conference in an official White House statement following her death last month.
“Jill and I are shocked and saddened by the death of Congresswoman Jackie Walorski of Indiana along with two members of her staff in a car accident today in Indiana,” the statement read.
“I appreciated her partnership as we plan for a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this fall that will be marked by her deep care for the needs of rural America.”
The Age Maximum Question
Numerous social media users and news outlets presented the mishap as evidence that Biden, who is 79, does not have the mental capacity to serve as president. Others, meanwhile, raised the possibility of imposing an age maximum for the presidency.
Most of the comments against the president came from the right, which has regularly questioned his mental stability. However, the idea of an age limit goes beyond Biden and touches on concerns about America’s most important leaders being too old.
While Biden is the oldest president in history, former President Donald Trump — who is 76 and has also had his mental state continually questioned — would have likewise held that title if he had won re-election in 2020.
These concerns extend outside the presidency as well: the current session of Congress is the oldest on average of any Congress in recent history, and the median ages are fairly similar among Republicans and Democrats when separated by chambers.
There is also a higher percentage of federal lawmakers who are older than the median age. Nearly 1 out of every 4 members are over the age of 70.
What’s more, some of the people in the highest leadership positions are among the oldest members. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), is the oldest-ever House Speaker at 82, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — the president pro tempore of the Senate and third person in line for the presidency — is the same age, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is 80.
As a result, it is unsurprising that a recent Insider/Morning Consult poll found that 3 in 4 Americans support an age max for members of Congress, and more than 40% say they view the ages of political leaders as a “major” problem.
Those who support the regulations argue that age limits are standard practice in many industries, including for airplane pilots and the military, and thus should be imposed on those who have incredible amounts of power over the country.
However, setting age boundaries on Congress and the President would almost certainly necessitate changes to the Constitution, and because such a move would require federal lawmakers to curtail their own power, there is little political will.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Business Insider) (NBC News)
Churches Protected Loophole in Abuse Reporting for 20 years, Report Finds
In some cases, Clergy members failed to report abuse among their congregation, but state laws protected them from that responsibility.
A Nationwide Campaign to Hide Abuse
More than 130 bills seeking to create or amend child sexual abuse reporting laws have been neutered or killed due to religious opposition over the past two decades, according to a review by the Associated Press.
Many states have laws requiring professionals such as physicians, teachers, and psychotherapists to report any information pertaining to alleged child sexual abuse to authorities. In 33 states, however, clergy are exempt from those requirements if they deem the information privileged.
All of the reform bills reviewed either targeted this loophole and failed or amended the mandatory reporting statute without touching the loophole.
“The Roman Catholic Church has used its well-funded lobbying infrastructure and deep influence among lawmakers in some states to protect the privilege,” the AP stated. “Influential members of the Mormon church and Jehovah’s witnesses have also worked in statehouses and courts to preserve it in areas where their membership is high.”
“This loophole has resulted in an unknown number of predators being allowed to continue abusing children for years despite having confessed the behavior to religious officials,” the report continued.
“They believe they’re on a divine mission that justifies keeping the name and the reputation of their institution pristine,” David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, told the outlet. “So the leadership has a strong disincentive to involve the authorities, police or child protection people.”
Abuses Go Unreported
Last month, another AP investigation discovered that a Mormon bishop acting under the direction of church leaders in Arizona failed to report a church member who had confessed to sexually abusing his five-year-old daughter.
Merrill Nelson, a church lawyer and Republican lawmaker in Utah, reportedly advised the bishop against making the report because of Arizona’s clergy loophole, effectively allowing the father to allegedly rape and abuse three of his children for years.
Democratic State Sen. Victoria Steele proposed three bills in response to the case to close the loophole but told the AP that key Mormon legislators thwarted her efforts.
In Montana, a woman who was abused by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses won a $35 million jury verdict against the church because it failed to report her abuse, but in 2020 the state supreme court reversed the judgment, citing the state’s reporting exemption for clergy.
In 2013, a former Idaho police officer turned himself in for abusing children after having told 15 members of the Mormon church, but prosecutors declined to charge the institution for not reporting him because it was protected under the clergy loophole.
The Mormon church said in a written statement to the AP that a member who confesses child sex abuse “has come seeking an opportunity to reconcile with God and to seek forgiveness for their actions. … That confession is considered sacred, and in most states, is regarded as a protected religious conversation owned by the confessor.”