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SCOTUS Deals Massive Blow to Voting Rights for Nearly 1 Million Ex-Felons in Florida

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  • On Thursday, the Supreme Court allowed Florida to enforce a ban that prohibits ex-felons from voting if they have outstanding debts related to their case.
  • Nearly 1 million ex-felons in the state will likely be unable to vote in this year’s elections as they will be unable to pay their debts.
  • On top of that, because Florida is offering little assistance, many will likely have a difficult time trying to find out how much they owe or if they even owe anything at all.
  • In 2018, nearly two-thirds of Floridians approved a measure allowing convicted felons to cast ballots; however, Florida’s legislature has worked to severely limit the scope of their voting rights ever since. 

SCOTUS Rules Florida Can Enforce Law

The U.S. Supreme Court will allow the state of Florida to enforce a law that bars convicted felons from registering to vote if they have court-related debt. 

While such a predicament might seem rather niche upon first glance, SCOTUS’ decision impacts nearly 1 million ex-felons in Florida who owe outstanding fines or fees related to their case. What’s more, the law also bars some 85,000 ex-felons who are already registered to vote from participating in next month’s primary if they also have not paid fines or fees.

The problem? Many ex-felons might not be able to pay off their debts, and others might not even be able to easily figure out how much they owe, if anything at all.

Florida’s ability to enforce the ban came Thursday when SCOTUS refused to reinstate an injunction that would have blocked the law. An indefinite injunction against that law was first ordered last year after it was challenged in court. In May, a district court judge then made the injunction permanent; however, earlier this month, that injunction was thrown out by an appeals court.

SCOTUS’ refusal also comes just days ahead of Florida’s July 20 voter registration deadline. On top of that, Florida is one of the most hotly sought after battleground states in presidential elections, and this year’s election is expected to be no different.

While the majority did not offer a written explanation for why it refused to reinstate that injunction, three of the Court’s liberal justices—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—noted their dissent. Sotomayor, who wrote the dissenting argument for the three, said the Court’s inaction “prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor.”

“This Court’s inaction continues a trend of condoning disenfranchisement,” Sotomayor wrote, describing the Florida law as a “voter paywall” against poor convicts.

Though not written, the reason why the Supreme Court refused to extend that injunction is because of a 2006 case, Purcell v. Gonzalez. In that case, SCOTUS advised against lower courts allowing sudden changes to laws too close to an election. 

Because of that, the state of Florida argued the permanent May injunction had violated Purcell v. Gonzalez. 

Sotomayor, on the other hand, argued the opposite, saying that the appeals court’s overturning of a year-long injunction violated Purcell v. Gonzalez. 

“[SCOTUS’ decision] allows the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to disrupt Florida’s election process just days before the July 20 voter-registration deadline for the August primary,” she said.

Florida’s Complicated History With Felon Voting Rights

For years, Florida has struggled with how to handle its felon population when it comes to voting. Originally, it had been one of only a few states that imposed a lifetime voting ban on convicted felons.

That changed in 2018 when voters finally approved a ballot measure that would restore voting rights to most felons,. At the time, 64% percent of voters cased a ballot in favor of the change. The ballot had needed a 60% supermajority to pass.

Notably, that vote granted almost 1.4 million people in the state—roughly 10% of Florida’s adult population—the ability vote. It also restored voting rights to more than 20% of otherwise eligible African-Americans, a group that was disproportionately affected under the original ban. 

To be eligible, felons would need to complete their parole and probation periods. Voting rights were not restored at all for felons who had been convicted sex crimes or of murder.

While that vote had bipartisan support outside of Florida’s GOP-led legislature, lawmakers quickly rushed to limit the scope of the amendment. That included passing a law that prohibited any felon from voting if they had outstanding fees, fines, or restitution associated with their case.

In June 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed that bill into law.

Despite that, the state offered little assistance to help felons determine how much they owed or even if they owed anything. In fact, the state said it would take six years to create a centralized database that felons could utilize. 

The law was then challenged in court by two ex-felons, where a preliminary injunction was ordered. In May, district court Judge Robert Hinkle sided with them.

In his ruling, Hinkle found that the law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment on the basis of wealth. According to Hinkle, an “overwhelming majority” of convicted felons would be left unable to pay for outstanding debts if they could even figure out how much they owed.

Hinkle also ruled that the law amounted to a ballot tax, which violates the 24th Amendment. 

Hinkle’s decision would have led to a permanent injunction and would have ordered the state to tell ex-felons whether they are eligible to vote and how much they owe. If the state did not answer those requests within 21 days, the ex-felons would be able to register to vote. 

But his order was inexplicably stopped from going into effect by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 1.  

The case itself has not yet been heard in the appeals court. That’s set to happen on August 18, the same day that Florida will hold its primary elections. 

Other Voting Rights Cases This Year

Thursday’s vote marks the fourth time this year that SCOTUS has refused to extend voting right protections. The other three cases each come from Wisconsin, Alabama and Texas.

Notably, those cases were not about convicted felons; rather, they concerned measures that would allow more absentee ballot voting in those states due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

For example, the Texas case sought to allow voters under the age of 65 to request absentee ballots. Currently, Texas only permits absentee voting for people 65-year-old or older.

See what others are saying: (New York Post) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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Churches Protected Loophole in Abuse Reporting for 20 years, Report Finds

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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.”

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Deseret) (Standard Examiner)

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Texas AG Ken Paxton Allegedly Flees Official Serving Subpoenas in Truck

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Following the news, a judge granted the attorney general’s request to quash the subpoenas.


Paxton on the Run

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fled his own home in a truck Monday morning to evade an official trying to serve him a subpoena, according to an affidavit filed in federal court.

Last month, several nonprofits filed a lawsuit seeking to block Texas from charging individuals under the state’s abortion ban in cases that happened out of state or prior to Roe v. Wade being overturned.

Two subpoenas were issued summoning Paxton to a Tuesday court hearing, one for his professional title and the other addressed to him personally.

Early on Monday Ernesto Martin Herrera, a process server, knocked on the front door of Paxton’s home in McKinney and was greeted by Texas state senator Angela Paxton, who is the Attorney General’s wife.

According to the affidavit, Herrera identified himself and informed her that he was delivering court documents to Mr. Paxton. She responded that her husband was on the phone and in a hurry to leave, so Herrera returned to his vehicle and waited for Ken to emerge.

Nearly an hour later, the affidavit states, a black Chevrolet Tahoe pulled into the driveway, and 20 minutes after that, the attorney general stepped out.

“I walked up the driveway approaching Mr. Paxton and called him by his name,” Herrera wrote in the affidavit. “As soon as he saw me and heard me call his name out, he turned around and RAN back inside the house through the same door in the garage.”

Shortly afterward, Angela exited the house and climbed into a truck in the driveway, leaving a rear driver-side door open.

“A few minutes later I saw Mr. Paxton RAN from the door inside the garage towards the rear door behind the driver side,” Herrera wrote. “I approached the truck, and loudly called him by his name and stated that I had court documents for him.”

“Mr. Paxton ignored me and kept heading for the truck,” he continued.

The affidavit adds that Herrera placed the documents on the ground by the vehicle and stated that he was serving a subpoena, but the Paxtons drove away.

Process Server or Lingering Stranger?

Following the publication of the affidavit in The Texas Tribune, Ken attacked the news outlet on Twitter and claimed to fear for his safety.

“This is a ridiculous waste of time and the media should be ashamed of themselves,” he wrote. “All across the country, conservatives have faced threats to their safety – many threats that received scant coverage or condemnation from the mainstream media.”

“It’s clear that the media wants to drum up another controversy involving my work as Attorney General, so they’re attacking me for having the audacity to avoid a stranger lingering outside my home and showing concern about the safety and well-being of my family,” he continued.

On Monday, the attorney general filed two requests: a motion to quash the subpoena and another to seal the certificates of service, which included the affidavit.

His lawyers argued that Herrera “loitered at the Attorney General’s home for over an hour, repeatedly shouted at him, and accosted” him and his wife.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted both requests on Tuesday.

In a statement, the attorney general said that Herrera is “lucky this situation did not escalate further or necessitate force.”

See what others are saying: (The Texas Tribune) (CNN) (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

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Ron DeSantis Faces Lawsuit, Investigation for “Human Trafficking” of Migrants

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A woman only known as “Pearla” allegedly lured the desperate migrants onto planes with monetary incentives and false promises.


A Political Stunt Blows Up in the Governor’s Face

After unexpectedly flying some 50 mostly Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is staring down a class action lawsuit, a local investigation, and a potential probe from the Justice Department.

On Tuesday, Lawyers for Civil Rights, in conjunction with the nonprofit Alianza Americas filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of the migrants. The filing names DeSantis, the state of Florida, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue, and their accomplices as defendants.

It alleges they fraudulently induced the migrants to cross state lines to Martha’s Vineyard, where shelter and resources were not prepared.

According to several accounts, the migrants were falsely promised work, free rent, and immigration assistance in exchange for taking the trip.

The migrants are seeking unspecified damages on top of the cost of their legal fees for emotional and economic harm.

On Monday, Texas Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced that he was opening an investigation into the migrant flights and DeSantis’s role in the scheme, which he called an “abuse of human rights.”

“They feel that they were deceived in being taken from Bexar County — from San Antonio, Texas — to where they eventually ended up,” he told CNN on Tuesday. “That could be a crime here in Texas and we will handle it as such.”

Salazar also said in a statement that his office was working with private attorneys representing the victims and advocacy organizations and that he was prepared to work with “any federal agency with concurrent jurisdiction, should the need arise.”

Since making the announcement, the sheriff’s office has been bombarded by threats via phone and email, according to a statement by a spokesperson.

Dylan Fernandes, a Massachusetts state lawmaker representing Martha’s Vineyard, called on the DoJ to launch a human trafficking probe into DeSantis Sunday.

He wrote on Twitter about the “inhumane acts,” saying, “Not only is it morally criminal, there are legal implications around fraud, kidnapping, deprivation of liberty, and human trafficking.”

A Mysterious Woman Named Pearla

Several migrants have told reporters, and claimed in the class action lawsuit, that they were lured onto the planes by a tall, blonde woman calling herself Pearla.

She reportedly approached them outside the San Antonio shelter, on the street, and in a McDonald’s parking lot, talking to them in broken Spanish.

Eduardo Linares, a migrant who said he rejected Pearla’s offer, told The Boston Globe that she promised them a free trip to Massachusetts and guaranteed work.

Another migrant named Alejandro told the outlet she offered him three months of free rent, job placement, and help with his immigration case.

The San Antonio Report interviewed a migrant named Emmanuel who said Pearla paid him $200 to recruit other migrants for the flights.

Tuesday’s lawsuit filing elaborates on their claims, saying that they were enticed with $10 McDonald’s gift cards to fly to Boston or Washington.

It alleges that the migrants were rounded up in hotel rooms while the scheme’s organizers gathered enough people to fill two planes, with them sequestered so they could not discuss the plan with anyone else.

“Once the individual Plaintiffs and class members landed, it became clear that the promises made to induce them on the planes were in fact bold-faced lies,” the filing says.

DeSantis defended himself on Fox News Monday night, saying, “They all signed consent forms to go and then the vendor that is doing this for Florida provided them with a packet that had a map of Martha’s Vineyard, it has the number for different services that are on Martha’s Vineyard.”

The brochures given to the migrants, however, listed services for refugees, not asylum seekers, and some migrants have said they weren’t aware of this fact. If the migrants were misled, the participants in the scheme could be criminally liable.

Who Pearla is and who employs her is still unknown, but DeSantis has publically taken credit for chartering the flights.

The League of United Latin American Citizens is offering $5,000 for information leading to the identification, arrest, and conviction of Pearla.

Two days after arriving in Martha’s Vineyard, the migrants voluntarily took shelter in a Cape Cod military base, which is designed for such emergency purposes.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (Vice) (The Boston Globe)

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