Federal court declares Florida voter registration restrictions unconstitutional

by | May 16, 2024

A federal judge ruled portions of Florida’s SB 7050 unconstitutional, specifically striking down the Citizenship Requirement that imposed fines on noncitizen participation in voter registration activities, marking a legal victory for voter registration groups.

A federal judge on Wednesday struck down portions of SB 7050, a 2023 Florida law that imposes regulations on voter registration activities, in a decision hailed as a victory for voter registration groups that challenged the law on constitutional grounds.

Chief Judge Mark Walker of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled that the law’s Citizenship Requirement, which fined groups $50,000 for each instance of noncitizen participation in voter registration drives, is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Hispanic Federation, and Poder Latinx, argued the provision violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

“The Citizenship Requirement in Section 97.0575(1)(f), Florida Statutes, as amended by SB 7050, is declared unconstitutional,” Walker wrote in his decision, in which he determined that the requirement facially discriminated against noncitizens, violating their rights to equal protection under the law.

The legislation, enacted on May 24, 2023, aimed to tighten regulations on voter registration efforts, introducing penalties for various infractions and specifically targeting noncitizen involvement. Supporters argued the measures were necessary to protect the integrity of the voter registration process, though critics contended the law disproportionately impacted nonpartisan organizations and created barriers to voter participation.

During the trial, the plaintiffs presented evidence showing that the Citizenship Requirement caused “concrete injuries.” Members of the organizations were unable to work as paid canvassers or had their employment terms altered due to their noncitizen status. The court found that these injuries were directly linked to Attorney General Ashley Moody’s authority to enforce the law and that an injunction would address these injuries.

“The plaintiffs have suffered irreparable injuries due to unconstitutional discrimination,” Walker stated. He noted that monetary damages could not adequately compensate for the loss of voter registration opportunities. The court ruled that the balance of hardships and public interest favored the plaintiffs.

In addition to declaring the provision unconstitutional, Walker issued a permanent injunction preventing Secretary of State Cord Byrd, Attorney General Moody, their successors, and associated persons from enforcing the Citizenship Requirement. The court also retained jurisdiction to determine attorneys’ fees and directed the Clerk to close the case file.

Walker also found that plaintiffs demonstrated concrete injuries traceable to Moody’s enforcement authority, noting that the law allows the Attorney General to pursue civil actions against suspected violators or to prevent future violations, independent of referrals from the Secretary of State.

The court decided not to address additional constitutional arguments presented by the plaintiffs, such as claims of overbreadth, vagueness, and burdens on voting rights and free speech, citing principles of judicial restraint.

“A fundamental and longstanding principle of judicial restraint requires that courts avoid reaching constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them,” Walker noted.

“Today’s ruling by Judge Walker permanently enjoining the citizenship restriction in Senate Bill 7050 is a significant victory for equal protection under the law,” said Cecile M. Scoon, Esq., co-president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “This favorable decision ensures that every person, regardless of citizenship status, can assist the League and other voting organizations in registering all citizens, some of whom may need to communicate more clearly in a language other than English. This ruling will enable all citizens to participate more fully in our democracy.”

Other challenged provisions of the bill remain undecided.


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