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NRA’s ‘Jane Doe’ argument divides Attorney General candidates

Republicans running to replace Attorney General Pam Bondi disagree with her legal stand against a 19-year-old Alachua County woman who wants to remain anonymous in a National Rifle Association challenge to a new state gun restriction.

And all five announced attorney general candidates, from both parties, object in some fashion to a wide-ranging law approved by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people.

The law, in part, raises the minimum age to 21 to purchase rifles and other long guns, imposes a three-day waiting period on the sale of long guns and allows specially trained teachers and other school personnel to bring guns to school.

The NRA, which is challenging the age restriction, is appealing a decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker that would prevent the Alachua County teen from being a plaintiff in the lawsuit under the pseudonym “Jane Doe.”

Bondi’s office argued that the request for anonymity “does not provide a sufficient basis for overcoming the strong presumption in favor of open judicial proceedings.”

Republican attorney-general candidates Jay Fant, Frank White and Ashley Moody sided with allowing the teen to remain anonymous, while Democratic candidates Sean Shaw and Ryan Torrens favor disclosure.

White, a state House member from Pensacola, pointed to the safety of the woman and said he wouldn’t have contested the addition of a “Jane Doe” to the case.

“The gun control crowd wants to bully and threaten her into not taking a stand for the Second Amendment,” White said. “I don’t think the identity of the individual impacts the substance of the case and as attorney general, I would not have pursued the unmasking of this young woman.”

Moody, a former Hillsborough County circuit judge, said she “generally” understands and supports the concept that anonymity shouldn’t be allowed in litigation.

“But the case law in this area does not deal with the unique factual circumstances presented by this case,” Moody said. “By and large, the prior case law addressed the fear of humiliation or some associational harm if a litigant’s identity is revealed. Here, the fear is greater. It is the fear of being harmed or living with the continuous threat of harm. The court system has always been and must continue to be a sanctuary of protection. I would never support a position that undermines that fundamental assurance to our citizens.”

Fant, a state House member from Jacksonville, said simply it’s his belief “that the safety of this young woman is protected and her rights are upheld.”

But Shaw and Torrens supported Bondi’s approach. The issue is pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

“Unless there is compelling evidence that this young woman’s safety is being threatened, setting a precedent that essentially closes off our judicial process to the general public because someone does not want their identity known in a proceeding they have initiated is not warranted,” said Shaw, a House member from Tampa.

Torrens, a Hillsborough County attorney, called the NRA’s argument “unusual.” The NRA also requested the use of the pseudonym “John Doe” for another 19-year-old who is part of the case.

“The NRA has asked a U.S. district court to allow individuals to keep their identities secret as they contend their Second Amendment rights are being violated by Florida’s new law that raised to 21 the legal age for purchasing rifles and other long guns,” Torrens said. “But the NRA is asking that the identity of the individual complainant, a 19-year-old Alachua County woman be listed only as the pseudonym ‘Jane Doe’ — thus making it impossible for defendants to verify the validity of her contentions, nor those of another party who has been identified only as ‘John Doe.’ ”

The Legislature and Scott quickly moved forward with the wide-ranging law after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Along with the gun-law changes, the measure includes numerous other provisions to try to improve school safety.

But the attorney-general candidates found fault with different parts of the law.

Torrens, for example, said the law doesn’t go far enough because it didn’t ban assault weapon purchases and goes too far in other areas. One of the most-controversial parts of the law would allow trained school employees to be armed.

“I stand with the Florida Education Association in opposing the provision of the bill that, in effect, makes it legal to bring guns into classrooms — in the possession of those teachers that choose to become trained to use them against potential school shooters,” Torrens said. “The law’s goal here is noble. But we have yet to see a written plan for how and where the guns of those teachers will be stored and safeguarded in a way that assures the weapons will never fall into the hands of students or adults who might use them in anger.”

Fant, White and Shaw all voted against the bill on the House floor, although for different reasons.

Shaw said he supported most aspects of the bill, but “the idea of arming teachers is a step too far.”

“Putting more firearms into our classrooms is not going to solve this issue and could actually create an even greater threat to students and educators,” Shaw said. “We need to address the underlying issue of the epidemic of gun violence in this state, where a child is shot every 17 hours, through common-sense reforms, not by adding more firearms into the mix.

White and Fant supported the voluntary training of school staff to have firearms but questioned the gun-ownership restrictions.

“I firmly believe it went too far in infringing on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” White said.

Moody also said she wouldn’t have backed the measure due to the provisions related to the age of gun buyers.

“I did not support the measure as a whole because of provisions that took away the ability of law-abiding adults to purchase a firearm to protect themselves,” Moody said. “There are, however, parts of the act that I agree with. I support the hardening of our schools, expanding law enforcement’s presence and role on campus, and providing more mental health screening and treatment to students. The heroism and bravery shown by (Marjory Stoneman Douglas) teachers like Aaron Feis, Angela McQueen, Jason Seaman, and others, show the protective instincts of those closest to our children cannot be ignored. That is why allowing certain extensively trained school personnel to have access to a firearm to defend themselves and our students should be considered. The focus must remain on preventing another tragedy, not on political points.”

Feis was a football coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who died protecting students during the February shooting. McQueen and Seaman are teachers in Illinois and Indiana who intervened to stop school shootings.

Hearing set in smokable medical marijuana lawsuit

Circuit Judge Karen Gievers will hear arguments this morning about lifting an automatic stay of a ruling that would allow patients to smoke medical marijuana.

Gievers on May 25 overturned part of a law passed last year by the Legislature that barred patients from smoking medical marijuana.

The law was designed to carry out a 2016 constitutional amendment that legalized marijuana for a wide range of patients, but the smoking ban quickly drew a legal challenge.

The Florida Department of Health, which regulates the drug through its Office of Medical Marijuana Use, appealed Gievers’ ruling on allowing smokable marijuana, which led to an automatic stay of the ruling.

The plaintiffs then filed a motion seeking to vacate the stay. Gievers will consider that request at a hearing today at 9 a.m., in the Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee.

She had agreed with the argument that the amendment “recognizes there is no right to smoke in public places, thereby implicitly recognizing the appropriateness of using smokable medical marijuana in private places.”

Orlando attorney John Morgan has called on Gov. Rick Scott to drop the appeal. Morgan bankrolled the amendment and organized what he calls the ‘no smoke is a joke’ lawsuit.

“How much more money is the state of Florida going to spend chasing (its) tail?” he said in a news conference last week.

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Background contributed by Tallahassee correspondent Jim Rosica. 

Democrats: Top spot on ballot gives Republicans advantage

Several Democratic groups are contesting what they describe as the “position bias” of Florida’s ballot order, which gives Republicans the top spot on the ballot in partisan elections while the GOP controls the governor’s mansion.

The groups want a federal court to require — before the November general election — that Florida’s ballot placements be something more in line with Ohio, where the order of names are consistently rotated on ballots, or like New Jersey, Illinois and California, which have adopted random-selection ballot order systems.

In a complaint filed May 24 in federal district court in Gainesville, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee are among plaintiffs contending that “position bias” puts their party at a disadvantage.

“Because a Republican has held the position of Florida governor for 20 years, this advantage has continued, unabated, for two decades,” the complaint said.

According to the complaint, the top slot on the ballot gives Republican candidates a 2.7 percentage point “bump,” while Democratic candidates gain 1.96 percentage points when listed first. The gap is considered significant, as, for example, Rick Scott won by narrower margins in his 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial elections.

“Position bias in favor of the first listed candidate on a ballot occurs because individuals have an implicit bias to pick the first choice in a set list,” the complaint said. “Position bias in the context of elections occurs most often when voters (1) lack information about candidates, or (2) are ambivalent towards the candidates, despite having information about them. In each of these scenarios, the order of candidates’ names on the ballot can be enough to nudge the voter to select the first listed candidate.”

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner is named as the defendant in the case. The Department of State said in an email that it is simply following the law, which states “the names of the candidates of the party that received the highest number of votes for Governor in the last election in which a Governor was elected shall be placed first for each office on the general election ballot.”

The party placing second for the governor’s office gets the second slot. Minor parties get the following spaces based on the order in which they qualify, with independent candidates — again based on qualifying order — rounding out the ballot for each office.

The race is on for Puerto Rican votes

Already-heightened efforts to attract Puerto Rican voters — whether the voters left the island long ago or are recent hurricane refugees — have shifted into higher gear amid a new death count from Hurricane Maria.

The Florida Democratic Party on Wednesday received a “first-of-its-kind” national party grant, worth $100,000, to “expand engagement efforts with Puerto Rican voters across the state.”

“With this grant, we’re making sure that Florida Democrats have the tools they need to identify and connect with new Puerto Rican voters, and provide them with the support they need as they settle in the Sunshine State,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Rick Scott embarked — in his official capacity, not as a U.S. Senate candidate — on his sixth trip to the territory since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last September.

The Thursday trip to “offer guidance” regarding ongoing hurricane recovery, came at the invitation of Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello, according to a news release from Scott’s office.

While critics have tried to highlight perceived indifference by President Donald Trump toward the island’s recovery, Scott’s office offered a bullet-pointed rundown of “actions taken by Governor Scott following Hurricane Maria.”

The latest Democratic and Republican efforts came on the heels of a report by a research team led by scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that concluded far more people might have died in Hurricane Maria than official totals indicate. Based on storm-experience comments from randomly surveyed households, the report said perhaps 4,645 people died who otherwise wouldn’t have perished if Puerto Rico hadn’t been ravaged by Maria.

The estimate would ratchet up the death count, which the officials who invited Scott to the island have held at 64 — 20 fewer than Florida recorded from Hurricane Irma.

Polarizing ‘report card’ grades given to legislators on education

Sometimes, grades depend on who makes up the exam.

This week, the Florida Education Association gave higher marks to Democrats than Republicans in the GOP-dominated state Legislature. The report card was based on priorities of the teachers’ union ranging from committee and floor votes during the 2017 and 2018 sessions to “behind-the-scenes” efforts on those priorities and access between union leaders and lawmakers.

In the union’s grades, seven Senate Democrats and 12 House Democrats got “A+” marks, while “F” grades were assigned to 16 Senate Republicans and almost every Republican in the House.

Among the more-notable grades was a “C” given to Sen. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Democrat, and a “C+” received by Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, of Tallahassee.

Montford, the chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, joined 19 Republicans this year in supporting a controversial measure that expanded publicly funded programs to send students to private schools (HB 7055).

Campbell didn’t vote on the bill, which got through the Senate in a 20-17 vote.

Not surprisingly, Montford was the only Senate Democrat to land on the honor roll in grades released in late April by the Foundation for Florida’s Future.

The foundation, created by former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, was more supportive of Republicans — seven senators and 16 House members got “A+” grades. Bush and the foundation have been key supporters of issues such as school choice.

Unlike the union, the foundation’s lower grades went to Democrats. In the Senate, the lowest mark was a “D,” given to three members — Democrats José Javier Rodriguez of Miami, Annette Taddeo of Miami and Victor Torres of Orlando.

In the House, 13 Democrats received “F” grades.

Each year, numerous interest groups come out with usually-predictable report cards for state and national lawmakers.

Retiring Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney offered an interesting point in an interview posted Thursday with Sarasota Magazine titled, “Rep. Tom Rooney’s Escape from Washington.

Rooney noted several issues influenced his plan to leave office after five terms. One was the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana during a practice for the annual congressional baseball game. Rooney has been the first baseman for the Republican team.

Another issue was scoring of lawmakers by think tanks and political groups.

“I’ve heard from people in my district, ‘Why can’t you be more like Congressman X who has a 100 percent rating from the Heritage Action for America?’” Rooney is quoted in the article. “It leaves me dumbfounded because I’ve never heard Congressman X make a single argument on the House floor or propose a single piece of legislation. For these think tanks, it means not just going against (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi, it means you’ve got to stick it to (Speaker) Paul Ryan.”

Many nursing homes, ALFs don’t meet power requirements

Months after Gov. Rick Scott promised a hard line against nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, much of the industry is not in compliance with new rules as the state heads into the 2018 hurricane season.

Scott pushed to require that nursing homes and assisted living facilities have backup power systems to make sure that residents can remain cool for 96 hours in case buildings lose electricity.

The Agency for Health Care Administration this week released data showing that nearly 66 percent of nursing homes in the state have complied with the new rules but that only 18 percent of assisted living facilities have done so.

Mallory McManus, a spokeswoman for AHCA, said the state expects full compliance with the rules, which required special approval from the Legislature because of the steep costs for businesses. The state will cite facilities that aren’t in compliance, which could lead to fines, she said.

“AHCA will stop at nothing to ensure assisted living facilities and nursing homes are following this important rule,” AHCA Secretary Justin Senior said in a statement. “We will hold all facilities accountable.”

But compliance doesn’t necessarily mean that facilities have equipment, such as generators, and fuel in place to meet the requirements, which call for being able to keep buildings at 81 degrees Fahrenheit for 96 hours. That’s because nursing homes and assisted living facilities that requested six-month extensions to meet the mandates also are considered compliant, McManus said.

A review of the data shows that 102 nursing homes can meet the requirements and that 348 facilities have asked the state for more time. There are 686 nursing homes in Florida.

The data is as of May 25, a week before the requirements took effect Friday with the start of hurricane season.

Florida Health Care Association spokeswoman Kristen Knapp said nursing homes that requested extensions could face challenges at the local level such as delays in zoning approvals.

“I don’t believe it’s fair to say that if a facility submitted a request for an extension it doesn’t mean they won’t be ready,” she said in an email.

Likewise, 205 assisted living facilities have proper equipment to meet the mandates. Another 344 are deemed in compliance because they have approved extensions or have submitted extensions. Six requests for extensions have been denied.

Unlike nursing homes that will be able to offset the costs of equipment with Medicaid funding, there is no assistance for the 3,102 assisted living facilities in the state.

Skip Gregory, who served as Florida’s chief of health care facility plans and construction for 17 years, said the industry is moving to comply with the new rules but that it takes time.

“It’s not as simple as snapping your fingers and saying. ‘Let there be air conditioning at all nursing home and ALFs,’ ” he said.

But Gregory said there still are “gray areas” regarding the rules and rattled off a number of issues such as long-term storage of diesel fuel and the use of natural gas for generators.

He also warned that allowing assisted living facilities to use gasoline generators to meet the requirements is a mistake.

He predicted that it would take 100 gallons of fuel to keep the generators powered for 96 hours and said owners of small ALFs would stockpile five-gallon gas tanks.

“I just don’t think that’s a good idea,” Gregory said. “That’s like a bomb waiting to go off.”

The rules are not what Scott initially sought in 2017 after the deaths of residents at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Broward County following Hurricane Irma. The hurricane knocked out the nursing home’s air-conditioning system, leaving residents in sweltering conditions for three days. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to the problems at the nursing home.

The Scott administration initially issued emergency rules that required facilities to have generators installed. But the emergency rules sparked successful legal challenges from some industry groups concerned about the potential costs. The state appealed the decision and continued to enforce the rules but also worked with Republican legislative leaders on codifying a pair of permanent rules.

The new rules don’t require that the equipment be installed, which indicates it could be portable, and don’t mandate a generator be used to keep air temperatures cool. They instead suggest generators but allow for each provider to determine the most appropriate equipment to meet their facility needs.

Moreover, the new rules require facilities to be able to cool off a set amount of square feet based on the number of residents. Nursing homes are required to cool at least 30 square feet per resident, and assisted living facilities are required to cool 20 net square feet per resident.

“By June 1, 2018, facilities must have access to an emergency power source such as a generator for use during a power outage, have arrangements to bring a power source onsite when an emergency is declared, or evacuate if the facility is in an evacuation zone,” AHCA said in a news release.

Justice for Aging attorney Eric Carlson supported Scott’s original rules but was more reserved in his support of the new ones, noting that the square footage requirements were “pretty tight.”

“They’ve been watered down,” he said.

Pot legalization could be key issue for Democrats

Three of the state’s top Democratic candidates for governor support legalization of recreational marijuana, and the fourth backs decriminalizing pot for personal use, showing near-consensus on an issue political rainmaker John Morgan said could determine the outcome of the August primary.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine back an across-the-board legalization of pot in Florida, where voters two years ago overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, meanwhile, has endorsed a plan to decriminalize marijuana for personal use, saying she doesn’t believe people should be locked up for possessing small amounts of pot.

Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who largely bankrolled the medical marijuana amendment, called recreational weed a make-or-break issue for Democratic candidates seeking to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

“A Democrat who doesn’t call for the full legalization of marijuana I do not believe can win the Democratic primary,” Morgan told The News Service of Florida this week.

In a Medium post on May 21, Gillum pledged to “inject new revenue into the state budget by legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana” if elected governor, predicting legalization could generate up to $1 billion in new revenue.

And legalizing pot will help undo the “over-criminalization of young people,” Gillum said during a debate between the candidates in April.

“We’ve got to end this prison-industrial complex that is being built all around a plant and a seed that, quite frankly, provides much more redemptive use than it does harmful,” he said.

Levine campaign consultant Christian Ulvert told the News Service the former Miami Beach mayor would back legislative efforts to legalize marijuana.

If the Legislature doesn’t take up the issue, Levine “wants to put the weight of the governor’s office behind a constitutional amendment and let the people decide,” Ulvert said.

As mayor, Levine supported decriminalization in 2015 when Miami Beach commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance that allowed police to issue $100 fines for people caught with less than 20 grams of marijuana. The city ordinance mirrored one passed by Miami-Dade County.

King has made legalization of pot a key element of his criminal-justice package and, like Gillum, wants to use the tax revenue to boost state coffers.

“Florida should legalize and regulate marijuana to end the practice of overcriminalization predominantly affecting communities of color and tax it to invest in programs that reverse the school-to-prison pipeline,” King said in an email.

King used the issue to jab his opponents: “Florida needs bold, progressive leadership and half-measures from conventional politicians such as ‘decriminalization’ or ‘following the will of voters’ are answers straight from the political establishment playbook.”

Graham, who has been criticized by some Democrats for being too conservative during her two-year stint in Congress, is the only candidate to stop short of endorsing flat-out legalization. Some states, counties and cities have used decriminalization as a way to allow people to get citations for possessing small amounts of pot, removing the possibility that they will be arrested on criminal charges.

Graham included decriminalization of personal possession of marijuana in a criminal-justice reform package released Thursday. She also wants to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug possession and called for a review of all mandatory- minimum sentencing laws.

“Florida should embrace the principle that no young person should go to jail or have their lives ruined over an incident of marijuana use — we can and should decriminalize,” she said in a statement last year.

But Morgan said the only way “people won’t be arrested, detained, ticketed or stopped” is the full legalization of marijuana.

“Gwen is playing a general election game assuming that she’s going to be the nominee, and that is the most dangerous game a politician can play, because it reeks of arrogance and it assumes that the Democratic Party is going to give her a pass on an issue they’re passionate about,” he said. “I would never vote for her in a million years with that position. And I think I speak for almost 100 percent of the Democratic Party. It’s an outrage.”

For Democratic primary voters, opposing flat-out legalization of marijuana is on the same scale as being against same-sex marriage, according to Morgan.

“You’re dead. You’re DOA,” said Morgan, who toyed with running for governor but has abandoned the idea in favor of pursuing a constitutional amendment that would raise the minimum wage.

Morgan is embroiled in a bitter legal fight with the Scott administration over a state law prohibiting the smoking of medical marijuana. Siding with Morgan and other plaintiffs, a Tallahassee judge last week found the smoking ban — included in a state law passed last year to implement the 2016 constitutional amendment — ran afoul of the Constitution.

The state Department of Health immediately appealed Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers’ May 25 ruling.

Morgan this week called on Scott to drop the appeal, warning it could hurt the Republican governor in his effort to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

All four Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls said they support allowing patients to smoke medical marijuana, if their doctors order it.

Where the candidates stand on recreational pot will affect the outcome of the Democratic gubernatorial primary and the Senate race, Morgan predicted, pointing out that more than 71 percent of voters supported the amendment legalizing medical marijuana.

But unlike the nearly $7 million of his own money he spent to legalize medical marijuana, Morgan said he’s not going to underwrite any attempts to make pot an issue in this year’s campaigns.

“I’m not going to unfold my wallet. I’m unfolding my wallet to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour,” he said, referring to a citizens’ initiative he hopes to put on the 2020 ballot. “But I am going to unfold my megaphone, and I don’t need money to do that. People listen to what I say.”

Debbie Mayfield backs Vero Beach utility deal

State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Rockledge Republican, is urging regulators to approve Florida Power & Light’s planned purchase of a utility system run by the city of Vero Beach.

“This is a unique and unusual situation involving a municipal utility whose electric rates have historically been some of the highest in our state,” Mayfield wrote Wednesday to members of the Florida Public Service Commission. “Over 60 percent of the utility’s customers reside outside the city of Vero Beach’s corporate limits and have no vote on how the utility operates or the rates it charges.”

Mayfield previously lived in Vero Beach and represents Indian River County in the Senate.

The Public Service Commission will take up the issue on Tuesday. The planned purchase comes after a long-running battle in Indian River County about electric service. That battle, at least in part, has pitted the city against Indian River County and led in 2016 to a Florida Supreme Court ruling in favor of the city.

Vero Beach has provided service for decades in some unincorporated areas of the county, with FPL serving surrounding areas.

But with the planned deal, FPL would provide electricity to all of the areas through elimination of what is known as a “territorial agreement” that carved up the county. The Public Service Commission needs to approve a series of issues, such as ending the territorial agreement and giving FPL the authority to charge its rates to Vero Beach’s customers.

A commission staff analysis said FPL would make a $185 million cash payment as part of the deal.

Vero Beach currently serves 35,123 customers, with 29,258 of them residential customers, the staff analysis said.

Supreme Court weighs judge’s Facebook friendship

The Florida Supreme Court is poised next week to take up a case that poses a question for the age of social media: What does it mean to be a Facebook friend?

Justices will hear arguments about whether a Miami-Dade County circuit judge should be disqualified from a case because she is a Facebook friend with a lawyer for one of the parties. The outcome could have reverberations in courthouses across the state, as justices weigh whether a Facebook friendship poses the potential for bias.

The underlying case stems from a dispute between the Herssein Law Group and a former client, United States Automobile Association, about attorney fees and alleged fraud and breach of contract. The law firm sought the disqualification of Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko because she was a Facebook friend with attorney Israel Reyes, who was hired to represent a company official in the case.

Butchko refused to step aside, leading the Herssein Law Group to take the issue to the 3rd District Court of Appeal. That court rejected the request to disqualify the circuit judge, concluding that “a `friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word.”

“To be sure, some of a member’s Facebook `friends’ are undoubtedly friends in the classic sense of person for whom the member feels particular affection and loyalty,” the appeals-court decision said. “The point is, however, many are not. A random name drawn from a list of Facebook `friends’ probably belongs to casual friend; an acquaintance; an old classmate; a person with whom the member shares a common hobby; a `friend of a friend;’ or even a local celebrity like a coach. An assumption that all Facebook `friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.”

But the Herssein Law Group, in a brief filed with the Supreme Court, said a judge who is a Facebook friend with a lawyer appearing before the judge violates part of a judicial code of conduct, “by presenting the appearance of impropriety, particularly where opposing counsel is not similarly sharing the same ‘special position’ or status of being a Facebook ‘friend’ of the trial judge.”

“Facebook friends have the ability to electronically share virtually anything from the intensely personal to the comically benign,” said the law firm’s brief, filed in January. “Facebook allows ‘friends’ to communicate, view, access, and comment on specific personal information that ‘non-Facebook-friends’ cannot view or see. Because petitioners’ (the Herssein Law Firm) and their lawyers do not enjoy the same ‘special position,’ Reyes has, of being a Facebook ‘friend’ of the trial judge, they are not able to freely access, view, comment, and share the same materials as Reyes. Thus, they do not enjoy a commensurate level of intimacy with the trial judge as Reyes does. It is this inclusion of Reyes and exclusion of petitioners in Judge Butchko’s inner circle and nonpublic forum that gives rise to the appearance of impropriety.”

But in response, lawyers for United States Automobile Association filed a brief that echoed the appeals court’s view of what a Facebook friendship means — or doesn’t mean.

“The Third District properly held that Facebook friendship, without more, does not convey the impression that the Facebook friend is in a special position to influence the judge,” the brief said. “As the Third District explained, “a Facebook friendship does not necessarily signify the existence of a close relationship,” … and it is therefore unreasonable for a litigant to believe he cannot obtain a fair trial before a judge who is Facebook ‘friends’ with counsel. The court’s observation that ‘a ‘friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word’ hits the nail on the head and demonstrates why petitioners’ purported fear of not receiving a fair trial is unreasonable.”

The Supreme Court decided in December to take up the case and is scheduled to hear arguments June 7.

Tourism boost sought after Alberto blows through

As winds and rains let up from Subtropical Storm Alberto, Florida officials Tuesday were quickly spinning ways to draw tourists to areas that may have missed out on Memorial Day crowds.

State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Gov. Rick Scott, during an appearance at the Walton County Emergency Operations Center in DeFuniak Springs, expressed a need for VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s public-private tourism arm, to emulate post-Hurricane Irma promotional efforts for the Panhandle and other parts of the state.

“This weekend should have really been the second busiest weekend of the whole year,” said Patronis, whose family runs Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant in Panama City. “We, the restaurant, we did 40 percent of what we should have done.”

Scott said he would call VISIT FLORIDA President and CEO Ken Lawson. But before the half-hour appearance at the emergency operations center was complete, Lawson called Patronis, who handed the phone to Scott.

“The Legislature gave us $76 million again this year (for Visit Florida), and part of that money is to work on when we have something like this, to let people know we’re back open for business,” Scott told reporters after the appearance. “A lot of people are very dependent on tourism here. And a lot of people are getting paid just based on how many tourists show that day. They’re tied to tips and things like that. So, we have to get the tourists back.”

Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for VISIT FLORIDA who is unrelated to Ken Lawson, said even though there was little on social media from Florida travelers about Alberto, steps are being taken “in an abundance of caution” to show locations across the Panhandle remain unfazed by the storm.

“We’ll be spotlighting the Panhandle across our social channels later this week to show that they are 100 percent open for business,” Lawson said.

A Facebook live event will also be held from Sandestin later in the week.

The promotional effort won’t require a special ad campaign similar to the $5 million spent to highlight the Florida Keys after Irma.

Otherwise, officials called Alberto a good tune-up for the six-month Atlantic hurricane season, which begins Friday.

Few roads were impacted by flooding, with Panhandle officials telling Scott that almost all roads, bridges and beaches were open Tuesday morning. Officials were waiting to see total amounts of rain that Alberto dumps into rivers in Alabama.

The storm also appeared to cause relatively few power outages.

At 3 p.m. Monday, 9,861 electricity customer accounts in the state were without power, according to the Florida State Emergency Response Team. That total indicates 99.91 percent of all power customers had electricity.

By 9 a.m. Tuesday, just over 1,000 accounts had not been restored.

Scott noted that since Hurricane Hermine hit the Big Bend, including Tallahassee, in August 2016, utilities have done a better job working together to restore power outages.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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