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State legal fees pile up past millions to defend felons voting law

Another $2.3 million recently authorized

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(News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida taxpayers have spent more than $1.7 million --- and are on the hook for hundreds of thousands more --- in the state’s defense of a 2019 law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” to be eligible to vote, according to state records.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has authorized more than $2.3 million in contracts with private lawyers, including a $265,000 agreement with Washington, D.C.-based Cooper & Kirk PLLC law firm, to represent the state in a federal appeals court, the records show.

“It’s a complete waste to defend such an unconstitutional system and, frankly, they knew going into the (2019) legislative session that they were going to be sued for it, and they have taken this course even though the law is just so fatally flawed,” Leah Aden, NAACP Legal Defense Fund deputy director of litigation, said in a phone interview this week.

Aden’s organization represents some of the plaintiffs in the challenge to the constitutionality of the law.

The state’s legal fees started piling up shortly after DeSantis signed the measure (SB 7066) requiring felons to pay court-ordered fines, fees, costs and restitution associated with their convictions to be eligible to vote.

[REWATCH: News 6 hosts Real Talk town hall on criminal justice reform]

The law, approved by Republican lawmakers, was aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment known as Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to felons “after they complete all terms of their sentences including parole and probation.”

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits challenging the measure, alleging that linking voting rights to finances amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.” DeSantis and GOP lawmakers, however, maintain that the state law carries out the language of the amendment and the intentions of its backers.

Wrangling over the law is expected to wind up at the U.S. Supreme Court, with the protracted litigation inevitably spiking the state’s litigation costs. Attorneys have battled in federal district court in Tallahassee and at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in the case, which could determine whether hundreds of thousands of felons are able to vote.

Siding with the plaintiffs in May, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle cemented an earlier decision and ruled that the state cannot deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable to pay” their court-ordered debts. The state appealed the ruling.

[RELATED: Felons’ voting rights in limbo again after federal appeals court ruling]

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case last week, after granting DeSantis’ rare request for an “en banc,” or full court, initial hearing in the state appeal. Three-judge panels almost always conduct initial appeals. The appellate court also put Hinkle’s decision on hold as it considers the case.

Charles Cooper of Cooper & Kirk represented the state in the Aug. 18 arguments. Under a contract executed by DeSantis’ general counsel, Joe Jacquot, in November, the state agreed to pay Cooper’s firm a flat fee of $250,000 for legal services, plus $15,000 for other costs.

Cooper also represented the DeSantis administration at the appellate court in the state’s appeal of an October preliminary injunction issued by Hinkle. A three-judge panel heard arguments in that appeal in January and upheld Hinkle’s temporary injunction in a February decision.

Before signing the contract with Cooper & Kirk, the DeSantis administration entered into agreements with the Tallahassee-based firm Hopping Green & Sams and Holland & Knight LLP to work on the case.

[THE WEEKLY: Some ex-felons in Florida still struggling to have voting rights restored -- here’s why]

A week before DeSantis signed the law last year, Hopping Green & Sams inked an $800,000 contract with the Florida Department of State “to provide litigation services in matters concerning the implementation of Amendment 4 and Senate Bill 7066.”

The contract, which originally included a $650,000 cap on legal services and a $310 hourly rate for lawyers Mohammad Jazil, Gary Perko and “associates,” was slated to run through Jan. 1, 2021, but was amended to end on July 1, 2020.

The state has paid the firm $572,135.65 to date, according to information on the Florida Department of Financial Services website.

Less than a month after the Hopping deal was finalized, the Department of State signed a $1.275 million contract with Holland & Knight “to provide litigation services and assistance with expedited discovery” in the case. The terms of the agreement included a $395 hourly rate for lawyer George Meros and other “partners” and capped costs for legal services at $1.2 million, with the remainder for expenses. The year-long contract expired on July 1.

The state’s hiring of Holland & Knight prompted U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to recuse himself from the case because his wife, Karen, works for the firm. In his recusal order last year, the federal judge hinted that the move to hire Meros, who frequently represents Republican state leaders, may have been intended to force Walker off the case, writing that “the conduct at issue here is deeply troubling.”

Meros recently moved to the Shutts & Bowen LLP firm, the firm announced this week.

The state has paid Holland & Knight $1,143,085.98 to date, including more than $15,000 this month, according to the Department of Financial Services website.

So far, the state has shelled out a total of $1,715,221.63. Florida has committed to spending nearly $2 million, including Cooper’s flat-rate fee. The Department of Financial Services website does not reflect any payments to the Washington firm. If the state pays the full amount of all three contracts, the total would be $2.34 million.

The costs calculated by The News Service of Florida are based on contracts and payments posted on the Department of Financial Services website. Aides to DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee have not provided information about how much the state has spent on the litigation. The amount of staff-related costs and fees racked up by the governor’s office and the Department of State is unknown.

“I do think the governor will spend whatever it takes to prevent people from voting,” Howard Simon, the former longtime executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told The News Service of Florida. “But if he’s going to prevent people from voting because they owe money, boy it would be nice if he spent a little bit of money creating some system telling people how much they have to pay.”

An effort to help felons pay off their financial legal obligations has drawn national attention. For example, NBA star LeBron James donated $100,000 to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s “Fines and Fees Fund.” Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan recently announced he would match up to $100,000 in contributions to the fund.

“My initial reaction is that probably could go to pay off a lot of court costs and fees,” Nancy Abudu, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney who represents some of the plaintiffs in the case, said when told about the state’s litigation expenditures. “The state has at its disposal millions of dollars that really they could nullify (financial obligations) by just paying off what some of these people owe. It is just further evidence that they just do not want certain people to vote.”