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Did Two Judges Violate Ethics in Florida Voting Rights Restoration Case?

Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa served on the Florida Supreme Court. Both were later selected to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit during the course of these proceedings. During their tenure on the state Supreme Court, Lagoa and Luck participated in oral arguments on the amendment issue. Lagoa was particularly vociferous in her argument supporting that the amendment clearly intended to include payment of all owed monies. Despite both judges hearing the case, neither Lagoa nor Luck contributed to the formal ruling that was handed down in January. The court found that the requirement to pay all owed fines and fees was a form of poll tax but also concluded that the Florida Constitution does allow such a tax to be implemented on the ex-felons as a requirement to having voting rights restored.

The U.S. District Court took up the case immediately after it was handed down by the Florida Supreme Court. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that the resulting poll tax may pass Florida constitutional muster, but it violates the federal constitution by premising the right to vote on a person’s wealth. Hinkle ordered an injunction, ensuring ex-felons in Florida could vote if the state could not prove how much someone owed or if the person could demonstrate that he or she were financially unable to pay the entire amount. Somewhere between 750,000 and 1.1 million Florida residents likely have some form of court debt. Shockingly, Judge Hinkle found Florida does not keep reliable records and in some cases cannot even prove how much is actually owed by an individual.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit rescinded Hinkle’s order, and the injunction was deemed invalid. The actions of the Eleventh Circuit raised the ire of several members of the Senate Judicial Committee. In a rare procedural move, the Court bypassed the typical three-judge panel, going straight to en banc.

At the federal level, almost all appeals are heard by a panel prior to being heard by the full court or en banc. Doing so caused newly appointed judges Luck and Lagoa to participate in the decision to rescind the injunction. That would be a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Ethically, a judge must recuse when “impartiality may reasonably be questioned” or if the judge had previously “participated” in “other stages of the litigation in a judicial capacity.” Luck and Lagoa clearly participated at the state level. Given Lagoa’s stance there, her impartiality could reasonably be questioned.

Prior to the Eleventh Circuit hearing the case on its merits, Luck and Lagoa were both urged to recuse. There is not a mechanism for forcing recusal. Instead, the judiciary ironically relies on ethics. It appears that the ethical violations of Luck and Lagoa may have tainted these proceedings. Floridians are now forced to accept these violations, the uncommon treatment of the case, and the resulting inability of up to 880,000 residents to cast their votes. 


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