Brendan Farrington, Author at Florida Politics

Brendan Farrington

Florida politics lopsided despite required fair districts

Florida has more registered Democrats than Republicans, but the balance of power in government doesn’t even come close to reflecting that.

Despite a 2010 constitutional amendment aimed at preventing political gerrymandering, Republicans dominate Florida politics. Democrats only hold 41 of 120 state House seats, 15 of 40 Senate seats and are outnumbered in in the U.S. House 16-11.

While it would be easy to say Republicans built their power because they draw the political boundaries for Congress and the Legislature, it’s not as simple as that. Yes, observers note, it has contributed to the lopsided political numbers in a state where presidential elections are often seen as a tossup. But they point out Republicans are at this point just better at raising money, recruiting candidates and winning races in districts that should be more competitive.

The Associated Press analyzed all 435 U.S. House races and about 4,700 state House and Assembly elections last year using a statistical method of calculating partisan advantage designed to detect potential gerrymandering. Florida was found to be one of the states with the largest Republican tilts in the state House. While it also showed Florida Republicans’ advantage in Congress was slightly more than should’ve been expected, it wasn’t to the point that clearly indicated gerrymandering.

The analysis examined the share of votes cast for Republican and Democratic candidates in each district and projected the expected number of seats each party would gain if districts were drawn so that neither party had an overall advantage. In Florida, Republicans had about 11 more seats in the state House than would be expected, one of the largest margins in the country.

Political maps are redrawn every 10 years after a new U.S. Census. Republicans helped gain dominance in Florida by controlling that process in 2002. Democrats controlled it in 1992 when they commanded the Legislature. Then Republicans flipped enough seats to take control by the time Republican Gov. Jeb Bush was elected in 1998.

“Republicans really put their foot on the gas when Bush got elected,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic political consultant.

The state House went from a 71-49 Democratic majority in 1994 to an 81-39 Republican majority after the 2002 election when districts were redrawn by Republican lawmakers. Schale said Republicans drew maps with highly concentrated Democratic districts so that they could create more Republican-strong districts that weren’t as concentrated.

As a result, Schale said, districts seen as competitive still have a slight Republican edge: “Even the places that are competitive aren’t truly like jump balls.”

Republicans acknowledge the 2002 rewrite favored their party.

Former Republican state Rep. Jeff Kottkamp sat on the House committee that redrew House maps. Kottkamp, who later served as lieutenant governor, said lawyers warned lawmakers that there were still rules that had to be followed. “You knew that the district had to be as compact as possible, contiguous. You tried to keep communities of interest all together. It just wasn’t always possible,” he said.

But he said every legislator tried to push for districts that increased their chances for re-election.

“Obviously if you’re the party in power and your members wanted to draw districts that helped themselves get elected, to a certain extent that’s naturally going to benefit the majority,” Kottkamp noted.

The 2010 “fair districts” constitutional amendment was aimed at preventing that practice. It requires lawmakers to draw maps that don’t benefit incumbents or political parties and to try to keep communities from being divided for political purposes.

Those behind the amendment successfully sued to have U.S. House and state Senate maps redrawn because they didn’t meet constitutional muster, but state House maps went unchallenged.

So, if the maps are fair, why do Republicans still dominate the state House? University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith said Republicans are better at fielding candidates and running campaigns — particularly in about 30 truly competitive districts.

“Republicans have done a good job of targeting those areas and getting good candidates and putting a lot of money into marginal districts, which they tend to win,” he said.

Likewise, he said state Senate maps are drawn fairly, but Democrats underperform in districts they should win.

Part of the problem with Democrats is institutional, said Schale. He said the party has no discipline and doesn’t recruit candidates as aggressively as it should.

“Too often we’ve settled for the first person who raised their hand, and that was not always the best option,” Schale said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Florida law shifts burden of proof in ‘stand your ground’

Florida became the first state with a law that spells out that prosecutors, and not defendants, have the burden of proof in pretrial “stand your ground” hearings when Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Friday.

The measure was among 16 bills that Scott signed, including a bill that gives students and school employees a broader right to express their religious viewpoint in schools.

The “stand your ground” bill was fought by prosecutors who say it will make their job more difficult to convict people who commit acts of violence and claim self-defense.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that defendants have to prove in pretrial hearings that they were defending themselves in order to avoid prosecution on charges for a violent act.

That led Republicans to seek to shift that burden. They argued that it protects a defendant’s constitutional right that presumes they are innocent until proven guilty. But opponents said it will embolden people to shoot to kill, and then claim self-defense knowing that the only witness against them can no longer testify.

Only four of the other 21 states with “stand your ground” laws mention burden of proof – Alabama, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina – and all place it on defendants.

Many states have long invoked “the castle doctrine,” allowing people to use deadly force to defend themselves in their own homes.

Florida changed that in 2005, so that even outside a home, a person has no duty to retreat and can “stand his or her ground” anywhere they are legally allowed to be. Other states followed suit, and “stand your ground” defenses became much more common in pre-trial immunity hearings and during trials.

The 2012 killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman opened a debate about the limits of self-defense, and it hasn’t let up since Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder after jurors received instructions on Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Florida could pave new changes in ‘stand your ground’ laws

Lucy McBath is afraid many more people will die if Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs a bill making it harder to prosecute when people claim they commit violence in self-defense.

She already lost her son, an unarmed black teenager, when a white man angry over loud music and claiming self-defense fired 10 times at an SUV filled with teenagers.

The measure before Scott would effectively require a trial-before-a-trial whenever someone invokes self-defense, making prosecutors prove the suspect doesn’t deserve immunity.

Scott hasn’t revealed his intentions, but he’s a National Rifle Association supporter, and this is an NRA priority.

“If it passes in Florida, then they take that same legislation and they push it on the legislative floors across the country,” said McBath, whose 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was killed by Michael Dunn outside a Jacksonville convenience store in 2012.

Many states have long invoked “the castle doctrine,” allowing people to use even deadly force to defend themselves in their own homes.

Florida changed that in 2005, so that even outside a home, a person has no duty to retreat and can “stand his or her ground” anywhere they are legally allowed to be. Other states followed suit, and “stand your ground” defenses became much more common in pre-trial immunity hearings and during trials.

The 2012 killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman opened a debate about the limits of self-defense, and it hasn’t let up since Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder after jurors received instructions on Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

Florida Republicans made this bill a priority after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the defendant has the burden of proof before trial. If Florida starts a national trend to shift that burden to prosecutors, it’ll be just fine with Republican Rep. Bobby Payne, who sponsored the bill.

Only four of the 22 or more state “stand your ground” laws mention this burden of proof — in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina — and all place it on defendants.

“It’s about following our right of innocent until proven guilty,” Payne said. “It’s about Fifth Amendment rights, it’s about due process, it’s about having a true immunity, for when folks really believe they’re in imminent threat of great bodily harm or death, to defend themselves properly.”

Senators originally wanted prosecutors to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” before trial that self-defense didn’t justify a violent crime. The final legislation lowered the threshold to “clear and convincing” evidence.

Either way, it makes prosecuting violent crimes more difficult, experts say.

“I think there will be more false ‘stand your ground’ claims,” said former Broward County prosecutor Gregg Rossman, who has tried 65 murder cases. The pre-trial hearings are “very much going to be like a mini-trial.”

Proving a killer didn’t act in self-defense when there are no living witnesses would be particularly hard, he said: “I worry the most about the one-on-one cases. You and I get into an argument and I shoot you. Who speaks for you?”

But public defenders say it should help people who were simply trying to defend themselves. Prosecutors often use the threat of minimum mandatory sentences to coerce people into accepting a plea deal even if their use of force was justified, said Stacy Scott, a public defender in Gainesville.

“It’s going to force them to deal more fairly with citizens who are charged with crimes, and will help our clients either get better plea offers or exonerate themselves earlier in the process so they don’t have to wait until a jury trial and risk everything they have in order to litigate their case,” Scott said.

McBath, who lives in Marietta, Georgia, believes the guilty will more likely escape convictions. It took two trials to convict her son’s killer of murder.

“We’re just one out of so many,” she said. “Because we won our case, I honestly, honestly believe that’s the reason why they’re putting these additional measures into ‘stand your ground.’”

Justifiable homicide claims have doubled on average in states that have passed “stand your ground” laws, said John Roman of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

Also, whites who kill black people are 10 times more likely to win a “stand your ground” claim than blacks who kill whites, said Roman, who analyzed these cases while at the Urban Institute think tank.

Studies also show that white people are more likely to feel threatened by black people than the other way around, “and if you then add onto implicit bias the ability to use lethal force, it’s reasonable then to expect that lethal force will be disproportionately applied to minorities,” he said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida passes bill to issue certificates for miscarriages

Florida could become the first state to issue what’s essentially a birth certificate for women who’ve had miscarriages under a bill the Legislature sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday.

The Grieving Families Act would give parents the option of receiving a state-issued certificate if a pregnancy is lost between nine weeks and 20 weeks of gestation.

“The parent can name the child if they have a gender or they can just name it Baby Smith,” said Republican Rep. Bob Cortes, the bill’s House sponsor. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, somebody in life has been touched through a miscarriage and they understand how important this is as part of the grieving process.”

The Senate passed the bill unanimously Thursday, three weeks after the House passed it on a 115-1 vote. The bill was worded in a way to ensure it wouldn’t spark a partisan argument over whether the state was trying to define life.

“This has nothing to do with personhood,” said Democratic Sen. Lauren Book, who said she received calls from people concerned about the bill. “It rather gives families that are grieving during a very difficult time some closure.”

Pregnancies that end at 20 weeks or later are considered stillbirths and death certificates must be issued. Parents can also request a birth certificate in such cases. A handful of states allow death certificates to be issued to women who’ve had miscarriages, but Cortes said Florida would be the first to issue what would be called “certificates of nonviable birth.”

He said many couples who grieve after a miscarriage already seek out certificates.

“They’re doing it right now, they’re just paying ungodly amounts of money for a fake certificate on the internet,” he said. “You have parents that have had miscarriages at 19 weeks and they find out after the grieving process that one more week and they could have gotten a certificate, and now they can’t get it.”

The certificate would contain language that it is not to be used as proof of a live birth.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Lawyer: Frank Artiles’ racial slurs offensive, but also free speech

A lawyer representing a state senator who could be punished for using a racial slur and other vulgarities said Thursday that the remarks — as offensive as they were — are protected by free speech and that other senators have used similar language.

Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews wrote to the Senate lawyer reviewing the case of Republican Frank Artiles and said that a complaint filed by black lawmakers shouldn’t be pursued because Artiles is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

He also said Artiles’ comments should be judged side-by-side with the remarks of other senators.

“Should this matter be sent to the Senate floor, my client intends to put evidence of other similar speech by other Senators,” Andrews wrote to Senate lawyer Dawn Roberts.

He also said Roberts should step down from the case because of conflicts of interest, having previously represented Artiles and witnesses that could be called.

The matter began Monday night during a private conversation with two African-American senators at a members-only club near the Capitol. Artiles used obscenities with Sen. Audrey Gibson, including one particularly offensive to women.

Sen. Perry Thurston intervened and Artiles, a Cuban-American from the Miami area, used a variation of the “n-word” and used a vulgarity to describe Republican Senate President Joe Negron, according to the complaint filed Wednesday by Thurston.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, reviewed the complaint and found it’s likely Artiles’ comments and behavior violated Senate rules.

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus is asking for Artiles’ expulsion, which would be an option if the full Senate determines there was a rules violation.

Negron asked Roberts to make a recommendation by Tuesday.

In the meantime, Republican Gov. Rick Scott weighed in on the matter while speaking with reporters in Tampa.

“If I had an employee that said what he said, I would immediately fire him,” Scott said.

Thurston wasn’t immediately available for comment, according to a receptionist in his Senate office.

In a separate letter to Negron, Andrews told the Senate president that he should avoid voting on any punishment because he has already prejudged Artiles by condemning the comments earlier this week.

____

AP writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report. Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Helping kids who make mistakes: Florida considering 2 ideas

There’s widespread agreement between lawmakers, law enforcement and child advocates that the state can do more to help juveniles who make stupid mistakes to stay out of trouble and avoid a criminal record that could follow them the rest of their lives.

But what approach it should take is still a matter of disagreement.

“Everybody’s heart is absolutely in the right place wanting to decriminalize being a youth in Florida, it’s just a matter of how to go about it,” said Mary Slapp, vice president of Teen Court of Sarasota, a juvenile diversion program in which offenders are tried by other teenagers and sentenced to community service.

There are two bills moving through the Legislature aimed at helping young offenders by getting them into diversion programs, like teen court, after they’ve committed their first misdemeanor crime.

A Senate bill would mandate that law enforcement issue a civil citation after a first juvenile arrest for a list of specific misdemeanors and a House bill would automatically expunge a youth’s arrest record after a diversion program is completed.

All sides agree the expansion of civil citation programs around the state has helped keep youth from committing more crimes, but tinkering with the program to improve it is where it gets complicated.

Republican Sen. Anitere Flores said the program has been inconsistent from county to county and she points to statistics that show civil citations are issued instead of arrest in only little more than half the cases where youth are eligible for them. According to Department of Juvenile Justice statistics, 8,831 youths eligible for civil citations were arrested, while 9,696 were issued citations.

“That’s a lot of kids,” she said. “Having the lack of uniformity means that some kids are getting a second chance and a whole bunch of other kids aren’t.”

Her bill requires civil citations in cases like alcohol possession, battery, trespass, theft, prowling, resisting an officer without violence and others. State statistics show that about 4 percent of youths who go through the civil citation program commit crimes again.

Republican Rep. Larry Ahern also believes in the civil citation program, but he doesn’t believe in forcing mandates on law enforcement. His bill would try to help first-time juvenile offenders while allowing police officers the discretion to decide when a citation is appropriate. As well as expunging records, it would legally allow people who’ve completed diversion programs to deny the arrest ever occurred when applying for a job, housing or the like.

It also would apply to any misdemeanor, not just a limited list.

“The record that follows a juvenile through their adulthood over a stupid mistake was a big part of the equation, so how do you eliminate that?” Ahern said.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association is backing the Ahern bill and opposed to the Flores bill. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri cited several hypothetical scenarios where arrests would be more appropriate than a civil citation, such as a drunken teenager on a beach creating a disturbance and resisting officers, or a teenager prowling in a backyard who is clearly about to break into a home.

Gualtieri said the sheriffs worked with Ahern on the different approach.

“We have offered something that absolutely takes care of the problem, what does the mandate do that our solution doesn’t do?” Gualtieri said.

While Slapp said civil citation is a good tool, she believes neither bill addresses problems with a lack of flexibility in the current program, such as a limit on three citations. She also said there are certain felony situations that don’t qualify for a civil citation, but where a diversion program would be more appropriate than an arrest, such as when a youth who takes a joyride on a golf cart doesn’t realize it’s a felony motor vehicle theft.

That’s what happened to Katy McBrayer. She was a straight A student and well-behaved at 14 when she started dating an 18-year-old who introduced her to drugs. She started making bad decisions, skipping school and staying away from home. Then she was caught driving a golf cart off a school’s property. Neither the Flores nor Ahern bill would have applied in her case because it was a felony.

She got in trouble again, for burglary and marijuana possession, and was allowed the option of going to teen court rather than to trial.

She mended her relationship with her parents, went to night school and ended up earning a college scholarship.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Court: Florida dairy’s skim milk is skim milk, not imitation

A small, all-natural dairy isn’t being deceptive when it calls its skim milk “skim milk,” a federal appeals court ruled Monday in a victory for the creamery that’s fighting the state’s demand to label the product “imitation” because vitamins aren’t added to it.

The ruling overturns a decision last March when a federal judge sided with the Florida Department of Agriculture, which said the Ocheesee Creamery couldn’t label it’s skim milk “skim milk” because the state defines the product as skim milk with Vitamin A added. The state instead said that if the creamery wanted to sell the product, it should label it as “imitation” skim milk.

That didn’t sit well with a dairy whose whole philosophy is not to add ingredients to natural products. So instead of complying, the creamery has dumped thousands of gallons of skim milk down the drain rather than label it as an imitation milk product.

“The State was unable to show that forbidding the Creamery from using the term ‘skim milk’ was reasonable,” the three-judge, Jacksonville-based panel wrote in its ruling.

The court said the state disregarded far less restrictive and more precise ways of labeling the product, “for example, allowing skim milk to be called what it is and merely requiring a disclosure that it lacks vitamin A.”

The Institute for Justice is representing Ocheesee Creamery owner Mary Lou Wesselhoeft in the lawsuit against the state.

“All Mary Lou wants to do is sell skim milk that contains literally one ingredient – pasteurized skim milk – and label it as pasteurized skim milk,” Institute for Justice lawyer Justin Pearson said in a press release.

The creamery, about 50 miles west of the state capital, has offered to put on its label that it doesn’t add vitamins to the product, but the state hasn’t accepted the compromise. It was selling between 100 and 300 gallons of skim milk a week for $5 a gallon before the dispute. The product made up about 25 percent of its profits.

The dictionary definition of skim milk is simply milk with the cream removed. But the Department of Agriculture says under state and federal law, skim milk can’t be sold as skim milk unless vitamins in the milk fat are replaced so it has the same nutritional value as whole milk.

The department didn’t immediately return phone calls and an email seeking comment.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida’s death penalty fix heads to Rick Scott

Florida will require a unanimous jury recommendation before the death penalty can be imposed under a bill lawmakers sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Friday.

Lawmakers rushed to get the bill passed on the fourth day of their legislative session in hopes of fixing a death penalty law that’s been found unconstitutional twice since January 2016. The effort has been seen as a better-than-nothing option for both proponents and opponents of the death penalty.

The House approved the measure 112-3 the day after the Senate unanimously passed it, a rare case of a death penalty issue receiving bipartisan support.

Not that everyone was pleased with it. Many Republicans prefer allowing the jury to have a simple majority in order to condemn a murder convict, while many Democrats would like to abolish the death penalty altogether.

But Republican lawmakers believe the unanimous jury bill is better than risking the death penalty’s abolition, and Democrats believe it will lead to fewer executions.

Lawmakers’ sentiments are reflected in two people who had vastly different experiences in cases involving the death penalty.

Herman Lindsey was on death row for two years before the state Supreme Court released him in a unanimous 2009 decision, finding there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him of a 1994 Broward County murder. Lindsey wants the death penalty abolished.

Chris Crowley‘s sister Angie was murdered in 1986 and her killer, William Happ, was executed in 2013 based on a 9-3 jury recommendation. Crowley would prefer a simple majority jury recommendation to impose the death penalty. But he and Lindsey will accept the bill though it’s not exactly what they want.

Under the bill going to Scott, Happ would have received life without parole. Crowley fears that murderers sent to jail for life still have a chance, however slim, of going free through future changes in law, court decisions or a prison escape.

“It’s gone too far the other way,” said Crowley. “I don’t like it. I think it’s a slap in the face to the victims, but it’s better than nothing.”

And there’s something Crowley believes never would have happened if Happ hadn’t been executed: his confession.

Happ never admitted to the crime until he was strapped to a table in Florida’s death chamber and offered the chance to speak one last time. Crowley watched the confession from behind glass just before the lethal injection began. He says Happ would have kept silent if he wasn’t faced with death.

“He did it to try to and save his soul,” Crowley said.

Lindsey has a different view after facing the prospect of dying in the same chamber. While he knows the Republican-dominated Legislature won’t abolish the death penalty, he wishes lawmakers would at least take a pause.

“Just like they’re passing this bill, it won’t take much to do a moratorium — take a stop and review the whole death penalty,” said Lindsay. “For them to say, ‘Let’s improve the jury,’ that’s a patch. I’m standing here in front of you with the experience of being on death row, falsely accused, and who did it? The jury.”

Lawmakers hope confusion that left executions on hold and ongoing death cases in limbo will finally be resolved once Scott signs the bill.

The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision. It was based on a case where a judge issued a death sentence after a 7-5 jury recommendation. The Legislature responded by overhauling the law to let the death penalty be imposed by at least a 10-2 jury vote.

In October, however, the state Supreme Court voted 5-2 to strike down the new law and require unanimous jury decisions for capital punishment.

___

Reprinted by permission of The Associated Press. AP writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report.

State could flip burden of proving ‘Stand Your Ground’

Florida’s “stand your ground” law, a source of contention for years, could soon provide even more protection to people who invoke it. Some lawmakers want to make prosecutors prove a defendant wasn’t acting in self-defense before proceeding to trial.

Florida has been a leader in giving citizens immunity in cases of self-defense, with its “stand your ground” law serving as an emotional point of debate after several high-profile shooting deaths, including that of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

While at least 22 states have similar laws that say people can use force – even deadly force – to defend themselves from threats, Florida could soon be alone shifting the burden of proof to prosecutors.

Republican Sen. Rob Bradley says his bill “isn’t a novel concept.”

“We have a tradition in our criminal justice system that the burden of proof is with the government from the beginning of the case to the end,” he said.

Florida’s Supreme Court has ruled that the burden of proof is on defendants during self-defense immunity hearings. That’s the practice around the country. According to a legislative staff analysis of Bradley’s bill, only four states mention burden of proof in their “stand your ground” laws – Alabama, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina – and all place the burden on defendants.

Bradley’s bill died last year but now its chances are improving: It’s ready for a full Senate vote when the session begins next week, and one of two House committees assigned to hear it has approved it.

Democrats are opposing the bill, but have little leverage to stop it in a legislature dominated by Republicans and with a Republican governor.

The bill has received passionate opposition from people who feel the existing law has already been abused and will be invoked even more by people seeking to avoid responsibility for violent crimes.

Stand your ground is not just about guns: The defense can be invoked after any act of violence aimed at self-protection, whether it’s punching, stabbing, shooting or striking someone with an object.

Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman‘s fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin isn’t the only case that’s part of the debate in Florida.

Lucy McBath‘s 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was fatally shot by Michael Dunn during an argument over loud music outside a Jacksonville convenience store. And in the Tampa Bay area, retired police officer Curtis Reeves is claiming self-defense in a “stand your ground” pretrial hearing after fatally shooting Chad Oulson in a dispute over a cellphone at a movie theater.

Both Zimmerman and Dunn claimed self-defense at trial and “stand your ground” was included in their juries’ instructions. Zimmerman was acquitted and Dunn was eventually convicted of murder.

McBath believes the way the law currently reads is why Dunn’s first jury couldn’t reach a decision, and says expanding “stand your ground” protections would make it harder to keep people safe from gun violence.

Testifying against the bill at a Senate committee meeting, McBath said the current law already “encourages citizens to shoot first and ask questions later.”

“This legislation would effectively require defendants who raise stand your ground defenses to be convicted twice,” she said. “Having lived through this grueling experience firsthand with two trials for my son’s murder, I can attest to the anguish and the pain that this process elicits. We should not make it harder for family members to achieve the justice that they deserve.”

Marissa Alexander, in contrast, supports Bradley’s bill. She unsuccessfully tried a “stand your ground” defense and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 for firing a gun near her estranged husband. She called it a “warning shot” to protect herself from abuse. Her conviction was thrown out on appeal and she was freed after reaching a plea deal in 2014.

“I feel like you go into that kind of situation guilty until proven innocent,” she said. She hopes Florida will start another trend if it passes.

“Florida kind of sets the tone and other states follow,” she said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Legislature at “open war” with state Supreme Court

The Republican-dominated Legislature’s tense relationship with the state Supreme Court is hanging over this year’s legislative session as lawmakers take up two bills to deal with the aftermath of court rulings that Republicans don’t like.

One of them is a fix to the state’s death penalty rules and the other a revision of the “stand your ground” law to better protect defendants claiming self-defense.

It’s no surprise that two other bills are seen as a shot back at the court – a proposal to limit justices’ terms to 12 years and a bill that would require them to file reports to the governor and Legislature on the timeliness of their decisions.

One of House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s priorities this session is to “reign in” the Supreme Court, which he said is trying to serve as two branches of government by writing laws.

“You see decision after decision after decision where courts are legislating from the bench,” Corcoran said.

Of the 2,300 or so bills before the Legislature, House Bill 1 would ask voters to change the state constitution to set 12-year term limits for Supreme Court and state appeals court judges. The fact that it’s the lowest numbered bill is symbolic of its importance to Corcoran.

“Nobody should have an office for life,” Corcoran said.

In Florida, that’s not necessarily the case. Voters can remove a Supreme Court justice from the bench and justices are forced to step down after they turn 70. And while Democrats have raised concerns about term limits, the GOP-backed bill sailed through committee approval and is ready for a full House vote.

“There’s open war against the judiciary,” said retired Supreme Court Justice James Perry, who stepped down Dec. 30 because of the mandatory retirement age for Florida justices. “They want to control us. We’re not their agency. They can’t control us. We’re not a political branch and that’s something they can’t seem to wrap their arms around.”

For the second year in a row, lawmakers are trying to fix the state’s death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision. The Legislature responded by overhauling the law to allow the death penalty be imposed by at least a 10-2 jury vote.

In October, however, the state Supreme Court voted 5-2 to strike down the new law and require unanimous jury decisions for capital punishment – a decision Corcoran said created upheaval throughout the justice system. Bills are ready for votes in the House and Senate that would require unanimous decisions.

While Republicans are supporting the new death penalty bill, it doesn’t mean they’re happy about being forced to fix the law.

“Do I think the Supreme Court has shown a hostility to the death penalty? Sure. I do, but we have an issue before us,” said Republican Rep. Chris Sprowls, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. “The court has made a decision, and we can either ignore that decision and continue to allow paralysis of the system, or we can fix it.”

Another bill addresses a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that states defendants making a “stand your ground” self-defense claim bear the burden of proof during pre-trial hearings. The bill would shift that burden to prosecutors.

Republican Sen. Rob Bradley is sponsoring the bill and he doesn’t hide the fact that Republican lawmakers aren’t fond of the court. He said that tension escalated when the Supreme Court forced lawmakers to give depositions in a lawsuit over the political maps they approved.

“That decision alone has created a real tension between our branches,” said Bradley. “My sense is that they are frustrated by some of the actions they see on the part of our branch. That tension, I don’t think, is unhealthy, but to not acknowledge that there is a tension would be ignoring reality.”

Another bill would force the court to file a report with the governor, attorney general and legislative leaders each year for the next five years detailing how long it takes the justices to rule on cases and detailing why there were delays when cases aren’t resolved within 180 days. Its sponsor, Republican Rep. Frank White of Pensacola, said if the court knows the Legislature is watching, it will try harder to resolve cases more quickly.

But Perry sees the bill as just another way to poke at the court and said it isn’t constitutional because one branch of government can’t tell another how to do its job.

“It’s a power play that they know they can’t win,” Perry said.

But he also noted there have been many other times lawmakers have ignored the constitution when passing legislation.

“The constitution trumps statutory law every time and it trumps them every time. They don’t seem to get it!” he said.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons