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Judge weighs Palm Beach problems as deadline nears

Almost two decades after Florida’s protracted and historic presidential recount, Palm Beach County was once again in the election crosshairs Thursday.

This time, it’s not a faulty “butterfly ballot” or “hanging chads” that have made Palm Beach County the target of lawsuits. Instead, county Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher blames antiquated equipment for her inability to meet a Thursday deadline to complete machine recounts in the U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott and contests for Governor, Agriculture Commissioner and a Palm Beach County state House seat.

Under Florida law, elections results that aren’t updated in time for recount deadlines default to the last numbers submitted to the state. Numbers from the Thursday afternoon deadline for machine recounts determine whether further manual recounts are needed.

The machine recount deadline was slated for 3 p.m. Thursday, while a manual recount deadline is noon Sunday.

But Nelson’s campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Thursday asked U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to extend the deadlines, arguing that voters in Palm Beach County — and possibly others — will be unconstitutionally subjected to different standards than other voters, based on where they live.

The Democrats’ lawyers argued that county canvassing boards won’t have time to decide whether ballots that were improperly rejected, such as damaged ballots, on Election Day should be counted.

And canvassing boards in Palm Beach and Broward counties may not have time to conduct the manual recount of “overvotes” and “undervotes” before the Sunday deadline, lawyer Uzoma Nkwonta told Walker during a telephone hearing Thursday morning.

In a recent filing in a separate lawsuit, Bucher’s lawyers said they would likely be unable to complete the machine and manual recounts before Dec. 1.

But during Thursday’s hearing, Nkownta was unable to say how long Bucher needed to finalize the recounts, frustrating the judge, who is handling six other election-related cases.

“I try to be practical. I try to understand that this is an election. It seems like everybody’s working on overtime to diminish our faith in our institutions. My order would just say do it until you get it done and let us know?” Walker asked.

Later, Walker scolded, “You literally have blindfolded me, shoved me in a room, turned all the lights out and said, judge, you’re supposed to fashion a remedy that impacts an issue as weighty” as who Florida’s next U.S. Senator and Governor will be.

Nkwonta said even an extra two days would help.

With more time, more ballots get counted, “that’s not a futile remedy,” he said.

If the judge is “unable to fashion relief that the court is certain will alleviate all the harm imposed,” he can still “ensure that enough votes get counted or additional votes get counted,” Nkownta said.

“The answer is not zero,” he said.

But lawyers representing Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who was appointed by Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Attorney General Pam Bondi disagreed.

The deadlines are there for a reason, they said. For example, Florida’s Constitution requires that the new Legislature be sworn in on Tuesday. U.S. senators are sworn in on Jan. 3, and the new Governor will take office on Jan. 8.

Mohammad Jazil, a lawyer representing Detzner, said the statutory deadlines regarding elections results should matter.

“That statutory deadline seems to work for 66 of the 67 counties,” he said. “We believe it’s good enough.”

Jazil drew Walker’s wrath by suggesting that one way of ensuring a uniform recount method throughout the state would be to have no recount at all.

“I’d expect to hear that from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but I’m shocked to hear that from the secretary of state. But maybe they’re one and the same,” Walker said.

Jazil later apologized.

Walker also chided Palm Beach County for failing to have “adequate systems” to run elections.

“It is inconceivable to me that we just had a presidential election with one of the highest voter turnouts in the state in 2016. Florida has had razor-thin elections over and over and over again, so we don’t locally allocate the funds to provide adequate equipment to do this,” he said.

Florida law only allows for exceptions to the deadlines in cases of natural disasters or war, meaning that the Legislature did not include an emergency provision for mechanical failures or other equipment-related problems, Walker noted.

“We have been the laughingstock of the world in election after election. I get all that. … We’re still going to go to a default where we don’t count every vote,” Walker, obviously irked by the dilemma, said.

Jonathan Cohn, who represents the Republican senatorial committee, said that there is no unequal treatment between the counties.

“The same rules apply to everyone, all 67 counties. The same deadlines apply,” Cohn said. “Palm Beach simply chose not to obtain those new machines, but each county certainly had the same opportunity.”

The Thursday morning hearing was one of a series in legal battles stemming from the Nov. 6 elections. Before starting the hearing, Walker issued a ruling in another case, giving voters until 5 p.m. Saturday to fix ballots that were rejected because of mismatched signatures. Scott’s campaign immediately appealed that ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Scott led Nelson by about 56,000 votes on election night, but the lead dwindled to less than 13,000 votes as ballots continued to be counted. That narrow margin triggered an automatic recount.

Once the machine recount results are in, the Scott-Nelson race and the contest for state agriculture commissioner between Democrat Nikki Fried and Republican Matt Caldwell will almost certainly fall within a margin of 0.25 percent or less. That would require manual recounts, with final results slated to be certified by the state Elections Canvassing Commission on Tuesday.

Judge sides with Democrats on fixing ballot signatures

Siding with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s campaign and national Democrats, a federal judge early Thursday gave voters until 5 p.m. Saturday to fix ballots that were rejected because of mismatched signatures.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker’s ruling came before a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline for a machine recount to be completed in the U.S. Senate race between Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, whose 56,000-vote election-night lead had dwindled to fewer than 13,000 votes when the recount was ordered.

The lawsuit focuses on part of Florida law that requires signatures on mail-in and provisional ballots to match signatures on file with elections offices. Voters whose ballots are delivered by 5 p.m. the day before an election have the opportunity to “cure” signature mismatches. But people whose mail-in ballots are received after that, or voters who cast provisional ballots on Election Day, do not.

County canvassing boards make decisions about whether signatures match, and thus whether ballots should be counted. But counties don’t have uniform regulations to govern the decisions, Democrats argued, making the process unconstitutional.

The judge agreed.

“The precise issue in this case is whether Florida’s law that allows county election officials to reject vote-by-mail and provisional ballots for mismatched signatures — with no standards, an illusory process to cure, and no process to challenge the rejection — passes constitutional muster. The answer is simple. It does not,” Walker wrote in a 34-page order.

Walker called the opportunity to fix a ballot “the last chance a vote-by-mail voter has to save their vote from being rejected and not counted.”

“Florida law provides no opportunity for voters to challenge the determination of the canvassing board that their signatures do not match, and their votes do not count,” he wrote.

In contrast, the law allows voters or candidates to challenge signatures that were accepted, noted Walker, who was appointed to the U.S. Northern District of Florida in 2012 by President Barack Obama to replace Judge Stephen Mickle. Walker became chief judge in June.

Scott’s campaign quickly said Thursday it was appealing Walker’s decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are immediately appealing this baseless decision and we are confident we will prevail in the Eleventh Circuit,” Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in a statement.

During a lengthy hearing Wednesday, Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews testified that 45 counties tossed a total of 3,668 mail-in ballots and 93 provisional ballots due to mismatched signatures. Two large counties — Duval and Miami-Dade — had not reported their results, and Walker estimated about 5,000 ballots statewide would have been rejected.

There are dozens of reasons for a signature mismatch, even if the person signing is the voter, Walker wrote.

“What this case comes down to is that without procedural safeguards, the use of signature matching is not reasonable and may lead to unconstitutional disenfranchisement,” the judge wrote.

Although the signature matching process is problematic, Walker said he couldn’t think of another way for canvassing boards to confirm voters’ identities.

“What makes Florida’s signature matching process even more problematic is that fact that counties have discretion to apply their own standards and procedures,” he wrote. “The only way such a scheme can be reasonable is if there are mechanisms in place to protect against arbitrary and unreasonable decisions by canvassing boards to reject ballots based on signature mismatches.”

Two years ago, Walker struck down a previous law that allowed voters who had not signed their mail-in ballot envelopes to “cure” the ballots but did not allow voters with mismatched signatures the same latitude. The law was subsequently changed.

But the judge said in court Wednesday that the law hasn’t been fixed.

“The cure period was intended to solve the inherent problems in signature matching, but the opportunity to cure has proven illusory,” he wrote in Thursday’s ruling.

Voters whose ballots were rejected were notified after it was too late to fix them, Walker wrote.

“Without this court’s intervention, these potential voters have no remedy. Rather they are simply out of luck and deprived of the right to vote. What is shocking about Florida law is that even though a voter cannot challenge a vote rejected as illegal, any voter or candidate could challenge a vote accepted as legal,” he added.

The state’s “scheme unconstitutionally burdens the fundamental right of Florida citizens to vote and have their votes counted,” he decided.

Lawyers representing Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office argued, among other things, that the plaintiffs waited too long to file the lawsuit. Walker rejected that argument.

The Republicans also argued that requiring extra ballots to be counted will unduly burden the election and disrupt election procedures, thus eroding the public’s confidence in the electoral process.

But, quoting from a federal judge in a Georgia case involving a dispute between gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp, Walker wrote that he “does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines the integrity of the election process.”

Any hardship endured by the state is “outweighed by the risk of unconstitutionally depriving eligible voters of their right to vote and have that vote counted,” he found.

Walker stressed that he was not requiring counties to count all of the ballots rejected for signature mismatches, but he ordered them to give “the limited number of affected voters” the opportunity to fix them before the “second unofficial results” are due at noon Sunday, following a manual recount.

So far, that involves just over 4,000 rejected ballots, Walker wrote: “The county supervisors of elections and canvassing boards are surely up to the task.”

Recount update: Ballot signatures draw judges ire

With seven election-related lawsuits pending, a federal judge clashed Wednesday with lawyers for state officials, national Republicans and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s campaign in a case about whether voters whose ballot signatures don’t match those on file should be able to “cure” the ballots.

“I’m being asked to rewrite the election code of the state of Florida, one piece at a time,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker groused during a five-hour hearing about the state’s process for handling mismatched signatures on mail-in and provisional ballots.

Nelson’s campaign and the Democratic Executive Committee of Florida want Walker to override a law that requires signatures on absentee and provisional ballots to match the signatures on file with election offices.

Voters whose mail-in ballots are received by 5 p.m. the day before the election have an opportunity to “cure” their ballots, by providing documentation to elections supervisors to show that they are who they claim to be.

But voters whose mail-in ballots come in after the deadline — or who cast provisional ballots on Election Day — aren’t afforded the same opportunity. And county canvassing boards, which decide whether ballots are legitimate, handle the mismatched signatures differently, lawyers for Nelson and the Democrats argued during the hearing.

Seeking a fourth term in the U.S. Senate, Nelson trails Republican Gov. Rick Scott by about 12,500 votes, down from Scott’s 56,000-vote lead on election night.

Wednesday’s hearing came before a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline for county elections offices to submit the results of machine recounts in the Senate race and the races for governor and agriculture commissioner. The Nelson-Scott contest is almost certain to fall within a 0.25 percent margin that will require a subsequent manual recount.

It was not immediately clear when Walker will rule on the ballot-signature issue. It also was unclear exactly how many ballots with mismatched signatures have been tossed out statewide. But 45 of Florida’s 67 counties have rejected 3,668 ballots due to mismatched signatures, according to Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections.

Among the counties not included in the totals were highly populated Duval and Miami-Dade counties, Matthews told Walker. The final number of rejected ballots could be around 5,000, Walker estimated.

Matthews said it appeared Nelson’s team wanted “ballots to be counted without verifying the signature of the voter,” something that she warned could “create a little bit of confusion.”

“I’m concerned about the fact that counties have been operating pretty much non-stop since before the election,” she said, adding that counting the additional ballots could “increase the number of errors.”

Walker bristled when Mohammad Jazil, an attorney representing Matthews’ boss, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, asked Matthews if she, like other elections officials, was tired.

“I can assure you the most tired person in the room is me. Let’s move on,” scolded Walker, who frequently took Republican lawyers to task during the hearing.

But Nelson’s lawyer, Uzoma Nkwonta, argued that the state should delay election deadlines to give voters whose ballots were scrapped an opportunity to fix them. Official results from the election are scheduled to be certified Tuesday.

“There’s zero reason why this election and the recount and the certification of votes needs to occur on Nov. 20,” Nkwonta argued, saying that to comply with the statutory deadlines would “disenfranchise thousands of voters.”

Nkwonta told Walker that voters need more than three days to have the opportunity to fix their ballots.

“At least a couple of weeks from now, if not more, given the Thanksgiving holiday,” Nkwonta said.

But Walker questioned how involved the court should get in the elections process, noting that it was “almost laughable” that the parties in the courtroom were taking opposite stances from their positions in an Arizona recount in which Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema emerged the victor after a recount.

“Isn’t it just fundamentally a bad idea to have a federal judge essentially being asked to rewrite the entire election code as ballots are being counted?” Walker asked. “This just seems like a really bad way to do this.”

Nkwonta acknowledged the concern over the number of lawsuits.

“But these are real, live issues,” he said.

Jazil, however, said Walker’s own remedy in a similar lawsuit two years ago was working.

Siding with the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee shortly before the 2016 general election, Walker ordered Detzner to come up with a way to allow voters to “cure” ballots that were rejected. Walker called the state law “indefensible” and said it threatened to disenfranchise voters.

“The remedy seems to be working,” Jazil said. “The numbers are going down.”

But that drew the ire of Walker.

“Unless you’re one of the people who got notified in the mail seven days after the election” that their ballots had been rejected, he said.

“Sorry, bud. You’re disenfranchised,” the judge said.

But Jazil insisted that the state’s deadlines have to stick, in part because of a Jan. 8 date when the new governor and Cabinet members will be sworn in.

If the executive branch elections aren’t settled by then, the Legislature chooses the governor and Cabinet members, Jazil argued.

“I cannot think of anything greater that would undermine … people’s faith in our democracy” than to have the state officials selected by the Legislature, Jazil said.

“I think there are a great many things that are undermining people’s faith in our democracy,” Walker retorted.

The judge seemed unpersuaded by arguments that counting the additional ballots would throw the elections process into chaos, appearing to reject the Republicans’ arguments that the extra votes could spark additional recounts in races that have already been decided.

Walker asked why he shouldn’t issue an order giving voters an opportunity to cure their ballots “between now and the evening of the 17th,” or the day before manual recounts have to be completed.

“I don’t understand why that’s going to completely bring Florida to its knees,” he said.

Walker, who lectured the lawyers throughout the lengthy hearing, ripped into Deputy Attorney General Jordan Pratt for suggesting the federal judge didn’t have the authority to strike down the state law.

If that was the case, an angry Walker said, Florida schools would still be segregated.

Walker saved some of his venom for Thomas Dupree, a lawyer representing the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who agreed with the judge that the legal challenge puts Walker in an “extremely difficult position of having to sort out winners and losers” in the election.

But Walker lashed out at Dupree, who argued that Nelson and the Democrats had waited too long to file their lawsuit. That would mean “every candidate who’s going to run in 2020 needs to run to the courthouse now and dissect the statute,” Walker said.

“Every judge in the country would be, ‘Bye-bye. You’ve got no standing,’ ” Walker said.

Walker also appeared to reject Jazil’s argument that voting by mail is a “convenience” granted to voters but is not constitutionally required.

“Implicit in all this is, ‘get off your lazy butt and go vote in a polling place,’ ” Walker said.

But Jazil said the state was trying to ensure that votes are cast by people “who are who they say they are” while accommodating voters by allowing them to vote by mail.

“We’re being asked to throw a wrench into a sequential, statutory process,” Jazil said.

But Walker balked again.

“I really don’t understand how that’s going to destroy the system and bring it to its knees,” he said.

Matt Gaetz, Democratic ally back veterans’ marijuana bills

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and a Massachusetts Democrat on Wednesday introduced a package of legislation to change the Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical marijuana practices in an attempt to make cannabis a more realistic treatment option for veterans.

Gaetz, a Northwest Florida Republican, joined with U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts to prepare three bills that seek to learn more about how veterans use cannabis, to prepare better medical-marijuana education for providers and to protect the benefits of veterans who use marijuana.

“Our veterans are seeking alternative options to opioids and we should be supporting their desires not to be addicted to painkillers. Let’s not kid ourselves, people are using marijuana — including our veterans,” Moulton said in a statement. “We have an obligation to regulate it and make it as safe as possible. We also have an obligation to make sure our veterans are getting the best health care in the world. We have a long road ahead of us until medicinal cannabis is fully researched and legal, but we can take a few steps now to start figuring that out.”

A 2011 study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that Veterans Health Administration patients were nearly twice as likely as the general population to die of an accidental opioid overdose, and recent survey data from the American Legion shows that veterans and their caregivers are interested in having medical marijuana as a treatment option.

One bill, according to Moulton’s office, would amend and codify an existing VA policy to protect a veterans’ benefits if they discuss their medical use of marijuana with providers. Moulton’s office said, “not all health care providers respond in a standard way and veterans still fear and experience repercussions of some kind.”

“Medical cannabis has tremendous potential for veterans. It can reduce chronic pain, without the harmful side effects of opioids, and some early reports indicate that it may even have potential as a treatment for PTSD,” Gaetz said in a statement. “Unfortunately, many veterans fear discussing medical cannabis with their doctors, for fear that their benefits will be jeopardized.”

The second bill directs the VA to conduct a nationwide survey of all veterans and VA health care providers to learn more about how veterans are using marijuana.

The American Legion reported last year that 22 percent of veterans are using marijuana to treat a medical condition, and 83 percent of veteran households surveyed indicated that they think the federal government should legalize medical cannabis and 82 percent said they want to have medical cannabis as a federally-legal treatment option.

In 2016, the American Legion resolved to “urge the Drug Enforcement Agency to license privately funded medical-marijuana production operations in the United States to enable safe and efficient cannabis drug development research,” and to “urge Congress to amend legislation to remove marijuana from schedule I and reclassify it in a category that, at a minimum, will recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value.”

The third bill Moulton and Gaetz rolled out Wednesday would instruct the VA to partner with colleges or universities that “have incorporated medical cannabis education into their curriculum” to develop continuing education programs for VA health care providers.

Moulton’s office said the bundle of three bills has been endorsed by the Drug Policy Alliance, National Cannabis Industry Association and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Pam Bondi, prosecutor in ‘Stand Your Ground’ clash

Attorney General Pam Bondi is seeking to block Miami-Dade County’s top prosecutor from getting involved in a Florida Supreme Court case and supporting arguments that a 2017 change to the “stand your ground” self-defense law is unconstitutional.

Bondi’s office late Tuesday filed a document opposing a request by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to take a friend-of-the-court position in the case. Fernandez Rundle has asked the court for permission to “adopt” the position of the League of Prosecutors-Florida, which argues the controversial 2017 change is unconstitutional.

The newly filed document said Bondi is Florida’s chief legal officer and that she — and not the state attorney — represents the state in such cases. It said granting Fernandez Rundle’s request would “serve no purpose other than to circumvent Florida law, which grants the attorney general, not the state attorney, the authority to speak for the state in its appellate courts.”

The highly unusual clash stems from a Miami-Dade County case in which defendant Tashara Love sought to use the “stand your ground” law to be shielded from prosecution in a November 2015 shooting incident outside a nightclub.

The “stand your ground” law says people are justified in using deadly force and do not have a “duty to retreat” if they believe it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. When the defense is successfully raised in pretrial hearings, defendants are granted immunity from prosecution.

The 2017 law shifted a burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors in determining whether self-defense claims are justified. By placing the burden on prosecutors during pretrial hearings, the change could help at least some defendants.

Love’s case has focused primarily on whether the 2017 change should apply retroactively to older cases, such as Love’s self-defense claim. Appeals courts have taken different stances on the retroactivity issue, and the Supreme Court agreed in June to hear Love’s case.

But along with the retroactivity issue, the case also has drawn arguments about whether the underlying 2017 change was constitutional. The League of Prosecutors-Florida, which includes current and former prosecutors, contends, in part, that changing the burden of proof in pretrial hearings is unconstitutional because it infringes on the Supreme Court’s right to regulate “practice and procedures in Florida’s courts.”

“The determination of which party in a court proceeding has the burden of going forward with the evidence, i.e. the burden of proof, is a matter of procedure, subject only to judicial authority,” the organization said in an Oct. 25 brief.

Fernandez Rundle’s request to get involved in the case said her office also has argued in circuit court that the 2017 change is unconstitutional.

“(The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office) supports the position of the League of Prosecutors and desires to adopt its brief as its own in an amicus (friend of the court) capacity,” the request said. “It is important for this court to recognize that (the State Attorney’s Office) has not changed its basic position that the statute is unconstitutional.”

Bondi’s office, which did not object to the League of Prosecutors-Florida filing a brief, contends that the retroactivity issue could be resolved without addressing the broader constitutionality of the 2017 change. Nevertheless, Bondi’s office disputes that the change is unconstitutional.

“Burden of proof provisions allocating and prescribing the applicable burden of proof in judicial proceedings are commonplace in both civil and criminal statutory schemes. … Notwithstanding the prevalence and venerable status of such laws, the state is unaware of any case in which this (Supreme) Court struck down a burden-of-proof statute as an impermissible encroachment on the court’s authority to promulgate procedural rules,” Bondi’s office said in an Oct. 19 brief.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Adam Putnam will raise concerns about revamped NAFTA

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam will voice concerns Thursday about the potential impact on Florida’s produce industry of the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Putnam, who has been a critic of the original agreement known as NAFTA, is slated to appear before the U.S. International Trade Commission.

When President Donald Trump’s administration announced a renegotiated and rebranded trade deal in October, Putnam said more work was needed to help the state’s farmers compete against growers in Mexico.

“I am disappointed that this new agreement has no new protections for Florida fruit and vegetable producers, who for too long have suffered from Mexico’s unfair trade practices despite our best efforts,” Putnam said after the reworked deal was announced.

Putnam has argued for years that pepper and tomato growers and other Florida farmers have struggled against Mexican counterparts who swamp the U.S. market each winter with low-cost produce.

The revised trade deal, which needs congressional approval, includes numerous issues, ranging from auto manufacturing and Canadian dairy imports to a dispute-settlement system.

Trump, who campaigned in 2016 arguing that NAFTA was poorly negotiated and hurting American workers and manufacturers, has proposed naming the revised pact as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Cabinet meeting called off

A state Cabinet meeting scheduled for next week with relatively little notice has been canceled.

The meeting was scheduled to be held Tuesday by telephone and include two Florida Power & Light power-plant projects in South Florida.

But a note on the Cabinet webpage Wednesday said, “This meeting has been canceled.”

No reason was given.

Representatives for Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The meeting was announced Monday and the agenda posted Tuesday morning.

Among the topics were plans by Florida Power & Light to build a 1,200-megawatt power plant in Broward County that has drawn opposition from the Sierra Club and a proposed FPL nuclear project at the Turkey Point complex in Miami-Dade County.

Scott and the Cabinet act as a state “siting” board with authority to decide whether power-plant projects should move forward.

In 2014, they approved FPL’s plans to add two nuclear reactors at Turkey Point.

But the decision was overturned by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, as local governments argued the governor and Cabinet failed to use Miami land-development rules and erred in claiming they didn’t have authority to require transmission lines be installed underground at FPL’s expense.

Scott and the Cabinet are scheduled to meet Dec. 4.

Matt Gaetz, Democratic ally back veterans’ marijuana bills

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and a Massachusetts Democrat on Wednesday introduced a package of legislation to change the Department of Veterans Affairs‘ medical marijuana practices in an attempt to make cannabis a more realistic treatment option for veterans.

Gaetz, a Northwest Florida Republican, joined with U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, to prepare three bills that seek to learn more about how veterans use cannabis, to prepare better medical-marijuana education for providers and to protect the benefits of veterans who use marijuana.

“Our veterans are seeking alternative options to opioids and we should be supporting their desires not to be addicted to painkillers. Let’s not kid ourselves, people are using marijuana — including our veterans,” Moulton said in a statement. “We have an obligation to regulate it and make it as safe as possible. We also have an obligation to make sure our veterans are getting the best health care in the world. We have a long road ahead of us until medicinal cannabis is fully researched and legal, but we can take a few steps now to start figuring that out.”

A 2011 study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that Veterans Health Administration patients were nearly twice as likely as the general population to die of an accidental opioid overdose, and recent survey data from the American Legion shows that veterans and their caregivers are interested in having medical marijuana as a treatment option.

One bill, according to Moulton’s office, would amend and codify an existing VA policy to protect a veterans’ benefits if they discuss their medical use of marijuana with providers. Moulton’s office said “not all health care providers respond in a standard way and veterans still fear and experience repercussions of some kind.”

“Medical cannabis has tremendous potential for veterans. It can reduce chronic pain, without the harmful side effects of opioids, and some early reports indicate that it may even have potential as a treatment for PTSD,” Gaetz said in a statement. “Unfortunately, many veterans fear discussing medical cannabis with their doctors, for fear that their benefits will be jeopardized.”

The second bill directs the VA to conduct a nationwide survey of all veterans and VA health care providers to learn more about how veterans are using marijuana.

The American Legion reported last year that 22 percent of veterans are using marijuana to treat a medical condition, and 83 percent of veteran households surveyed indicated that they think the federal government should legalize medical cannabis and 82 percent said they want to have medical cannabis as a federally-legal treatment option.

In 2016, the American Legion resolved to “urge the Drug Enforcement Agency to license privately funded medical-marijuana production operations in the United States to enable safe and efficient cannabis drug development research,” and to “urge Congress to amend legislation to remove marijuana from schedule I and reclassify it in a category that, at a minimum, will recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value.”

The third bill Moulton and Gaetz rolled out Wednesday would instruct the VA to partner with colleges or universities that “have incorporated medical cannabis education into their curriculum” to develop continuing education programs for VA health care providers.

Moulton’s office said the bundle of three bills has been endorsed by the Drug Policy Alliance, National Cannabis Industry Association and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Early recount totals show little change

Recounts wrapping up in small and mid-sized counties are showing few changes to initial results in the races for Governor, U.S. Senate and Agriculture Commissioner.

But bigger counties still have until Thursday afternoon to complete the state-mandated recount process.

In Leon County, where elections officials completed running more than 140,000 ballots through tabulating machines Tuesday afternoon, the candidates in the major statewide races all lost several votes.

Recounted numbers in Citrus County found two additional votes each for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott and Agriculture-Commissioner candidate Matt Caldwell.

In Alachua County, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s lead over Scott among county voters grew by 26 votes. Statewide, Nelson trailed Scott by 12,562 votes when unofficial results were posted Saturday from the Nov. 6 election.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, down by 33,684 in the unofficial statewide numbers, gained 12 votes in Alachua County in his race with DeSantis. And Democratic Agriculture-Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried, up 5,326 votes statewide on Saturday, gained 26 votes in Alachua County.

While political arguments and lawsuits have put the focus of the recount on Palm Beach and Broward counties, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said he doesn’t expect there to be “dramatic changes” in the statewide vote totals.

“That’s what I have seen borne out in most other recounts that I’ve been involved with,” Earley said. “Even in the 2000 recount, we didn’t have a lot of change, Leon County especially.”

In Leon County, Scott’s countywide total dropped three votes while Nelson’s support went down five votes. DeSantis lost five votes. Gillum lost six votes. Caldwell’s countywide number went down three. Fried lost four votes.

Earley said he expects those numbers will be made up by each candidate if a manual recount is called because of undervotes being set apart in machine counting.

In a machine recount, all ballots are fed through voting machines. Ballots with “undervotes” or “overvotes” — in which voters may have skipped races or made extra marks in races, causing their ballots to be rejected by the machines — are set aside, or “outstacked.”

If a manual recount becomes necessary, county canvassing boards examine the “outstacked” ballots.

Machine recounts were called for the three statewide races because each was within a margin of 0.5 percentage points or less when the unofficial results were posted.

County supervisors of election have until 3 p.m. Thursday to submit their machine recount numbers. Races with margins of 0.25 percentage points or less at that point will go to manual, or hand, recounts.

Florida Division of Elections spokeswoman Sarah Revell said the recount numbers won’t be posted for each county until after the Thursday deadline.

“We will post the second unofficial results all at one time on Florida Election Watch,” Revell said, referring to part of the division’s website.

Scott recount attorney Tim Cerio said that, as of Tuesday afternoon, 25 counties had completed recounting, and the process had started in all but Clay County, where 90,040 ballots were tabulated in the first unofficial totals.

Corrine Brown appeal pushed back to February

A federal appeals court will hear arguments in February in a challenge filed by former Congresswoman Corrine Brown after she was convicted on felony charges in a charity scam.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had previously said oral arguments are needed in the case and tentatively scheduled them for the week of Dec. 10 in Atlanta, according to an online docket.

However, that hearing has been pushed back.

Brown appealed to the Atlanta-based court after she was convicted last year on 18 felony counts and sentenced to five years in prison.

A former 12-term Democratic congresswoman from Jacksonville, Brown was convicted on fraud and tax charges related to her role in using contributions to the One Door for Education charity for personal expenses and events.

But in the appeal, Brown contends that a juror was improperly dismissed from her trial. The dismissal came after the juror made statements such as the “Holy Ghost” told him Brown was not guilty.

Prosecutors, however, argue a district judge acted properly in replacing the juror with an alternate and disputed that the decision violated religious rights.

Brown, who lost a re-election bid in 2016, is an inmate at the Coleman federal prison in Sumter County, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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