Susan Washington, Author at Florida Politics

Susan Washington

In mock court, UF law students argue case echoing infamous FSU ‘Jane Doe’ lawsuit

The black-robed justices who filed solemnly into a courtroom at the University of Florida law school Thursday morning were not the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, but they were announced as if they were.

“All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the court is now sitting,” a bailiff boomed out as students, law professors and attorneys with Holland & Knight — the law firm that sponsored the event — stood respectfully.

But when Florida’s chief justice, Jorge Labarga, took a seat behind the long desk at the front of the room, along with four of his colleagues from the state’s high court, and said, “I’m actually Justice Roberts” — referring to the chief justice of the nation’s high court — laughter and applause erupted throughout the room.

Ignoring the outburst, Labarga continued. “We’re here today to decide over … ah, the case of …” he flipped through a file before him, “Chilton State University and Jane Doe.”

Over the more than two hours that followed, two law students representing that fictional university and two students representing a fictional female student presented arguments explaining why the university had, or did not have, responsibility under the federal law known as Title IX to investigate her allegations that she was raped at an off-campus event by a male student who had a leadership role at the university that they both attended.

Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. The law also addresses sexual harassment and rape of students.

In the fictional case presented at UF’s 33rd Annual Raymer F. Maguire Appellate Advocacy Competition, events, characters, circumstances and questions of law — discussed by the students and the justices — sounded strikingly similar to a high-profile lawsuit that another “Jane Doe” brought in 2015 against Florida State University. That lawsuit was resolved last year, when FSU paid a historic Title IX settlement — $950,000 — after Erica Kinsman accused the university’s star quarterback at that time, Jameis Winston, of raping her at an off-campus location in 2012. (Kinsman eventually identified herself publicly in a documentary film, “The Hunting Ground,” about sexual assault on college campuses in the United States. According to the film, college administrations often fail to adequately address the assaults.)

In the fictional lawsuit used in the competition at UF, as well as in the lawsuit brought against FSU, the female student who said she was raped as a freshman withdrew from the school, complaining that the university had not adequately responded to her accusations.

In the case at FSU, Kinsman accused the university of hiding her complaint “to protect the football program.” A year after she identified Winston to police in Tallahassee, he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to FSU’s third national championship. The state attorney’s office in Tallahassee investigated, and FSU held a disciplinary hearing, but no charges were brought against Winston.

In the fictional case — which the American Bar Association created last year for use in appellate advocacy competitions throughout the United States this year — the accused student was promoted to president of a fraternity following the rape accusations against him.

The case dealt with “topics that are very relevant to our age and time,” said Aaron Holman, a second-year law student from Winter Park. He said that, as his team prepared for the competition, representing fictional “Chilton State University,” the case at FSU “has come up in discussion as something very similar.”

The Chilton case is an appeal — to justices presumed to be sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court — and addresses the question of “duties of educational institutions to adjudicate allegations of student-on-student assault that occurs off-campus” and “whether Title IX allows a claim for relief against a university that refused to investigate an allegation of student-on-student harassment because it occurred purely off-campus and outside the context of any university program.”

At the competition at UF, Justice Barbara Pariente, referring to what she described as a “proliferation of sexual assaults on campus,” said “I’m sure fraternities are the breeding ground for many of these sexual assaults, when drinking takes place.”

But Seth Donahoe, a third-year law student from West Palm Beach, said that when a sexual assault is alleged to have occurred away from campus and outside of university-sponsored activities, for the university “to embark on an ad hoc, informal investigation would subject the school to potential different types of liability because they are not considering the due process rights of the accused.”

His teammate Sara Altes noted how “in 2001, the Department of Education went through formal rule-making procedures that set out how a school must go through allegations of sexual assault. This would provide and ensure safety for both the accused and those who experience sexual harassment.”

She added, “While it is incredibly unfortunate what happened to the respondent, Title IX is not the proper legal remedy.”

Steve Cline, a second-year law student from Virginia, represented the respondent, Doe, in the Chilton case, as did Brandon Cook, a second-year law student from New Smyrna Beach. Referring to the continuing effects suffered by Doe from the on-campus presence of the alleged perpetrator of an off-campus assault, Cline said the university should “look into the allegations to ensure that there is no continuing effect on campus.”

Cook agreed that educational institutions are obliged under Title IX to investigate after students allege an off-campus assault from another student, adding that “the university’s duty to respond to reports of sexual assault or harassment is independent of any duty of police enforcement.”

But Justice C. Alan Lawson noted, “You really are saying that each university in this country has to come up with means and mechanisms and personnel and resources to independently investigate sexual assaults between students, no matter where they occur.”

Justice Ricky Polston questioned how universities would ensure due process rights of accused students. Justice Charles Canady also judged the competition.

At the conclusion of the competition, Labarga announced the team representing the university as the winning team and Donahoe as the winning “oralist.”

After the competition, Donahoe said his challenge had been “reigning in a really complex, administrative law problem to very simple, deliverable points in oral argument. It’s not necessarily the law was or was not favorable. It’s just very nuanced.”

His teammate, Holman, agreed. “There are fair and strong arguments on both sides. There is no clear-cut answer.”

He described the competition as “a showcase for our school and a practice for the national tournament,” which is set for Chicago in April. Next month, the teams from the UF law school plan to attend a regional competition in Boston.

From left, Florida Supreme Court Justice C. Alan Lawson, with University of Florida law students — Seth Donahoe, Sara Altes, Steve Cline and Rachel Sheffield — at the conclusion of the annual appellate advocacy competition, Feb. 16, 2017. (Photo: Susan Washington)
Five justices of the Florida Supreme Court — front row, from left — C. Alan Lawson, Charles T. Canady, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, Barbara J. Pariente and Ricky Polston, at the University of Florida’s annual appellate advocacy competition, Feb. 16, 2017. (Photo: Susan Washington)

North Florida water managers OK first-ever long-term usage, supply plan

ALACHUA, Fla. — The first-ever long-range plan for water use in a vast, North Florida region — home to around 1.5 million people in 14 counties stretching over more than 8,000 square miles — was approved here on Jan. 17, in a joint meeting of the governing boards of two water management districts.

“This plan stands squarely on our science,” said Dr. Ann Shortelle, executive director of the Saint Johns River Water Management District.

Shortelle was previously executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, whose governing board — along with that of the SJRWMD – approved the water plan for a region of Florida that includes more than 140 springs.

The two-hour-long meeting was the second occasion that the two boards had convened together. The first time was at the start of the regional water-planning process, in 2012.

Anticipating a large turnout for the final meeting — following dozens of meetings over four years, during which members of the public had aired a range of views on the water plan — a public address system was set up outside city hall, where the meeting was held. But only about a dozen demonstrators assembled, waving handmade posters. Some of them criticized the water plan during the public comment portion of the meeting, prior to the boards’ unanimous approval of the plan.

Dr. Robert Knight, the founder and director of the Florida Springs Institute, cited a reduction of as much of 40 percent in water flow for some rivers in the region — including Silver Springs and the Suwannee River — and urged a halt to all new permitting for water use.

“We are not protecting the natural environment as we are required to do by law,” said Knight, a wetlands ecologist who was previously employed by each of the two districts.

Florida law requires the state’s water management districts’ governing boards to “conduct water supply planning … where it determines that existing sources of water are not adequate to supply water for all existing and future reasonable-beneficial uses and to sustain the water resources and related natural systems …”

According to the new plan, the districts had determined that groundwater alone cannot supply an expected 21 percent increase in water use in the region over a planning period that extends to 2035 “without causing unacceptable impacts to water resources.” The possibility of drought would increase water demand further for the region, which extends, in the north, from the Georgia border with the Florida counties of Hamilton, Columbia, Baker and Nassau south as far as Gilchrist, Alachua, Putnam and Flagler counties and including, as well, Florida’s Atlantic coast north of Daytona Beach.

Because of the projections for increased water use — as high as 117 million gallons per day by 2035 — the North Florida Regional Water Supply Partnership was established in 2011 by the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation. And 36 public hearings were held throughout the region, including one meeting with the Southwest Water Management District.

But some environmentalists who attended the final meeting in Alachua complained that their input — throughout the public hearings, which were conducted by a Stakeholder Advisory Committee consisting of 12 appointees representing public water supply, commercial/power generation, industrial/mining, agriculture, environmental and local governments — had been ignored.

“The environmental side of the house is underrepresented on that committee,” said Dr. Pat Welsh — a retired oceanographer and environmental engineer. “It is underrepresented in everything we do.”

The advisory committee had voted unanimously in November in favor of the water plan. And Jacquie Sulek, a resident of Fort White who had served on the committee, spoke at the boards’ meeting Tuesday in favor of the plan.

“Adoption of the regional water supply plan will be a very, very important first step,” she said. “This is not the end. This is the beginning.”

Don Quincey, chairman of the SWRWMD, said of the comments from those who opposed the plan, “We haven’t heard anything today that we haven’t heard many times.”

Quincey — the owner of Quincey Cattle Company, located in Chiefland — is also a member of the board of the Florida Cattleman’s Association.

And water pollution — and water consumption — due to cattle ranching were among the concerns expressed by some who attended the meeting. Stephen Hunter, a longtime resident of Bradford County, which is included in the water-planning region, complained of the SJRWMD’s recommendation last month of approval for an increase in water consumption for a cattle ranch near Silver Springs.

“It’s our water. It’s my grandchildren’s water and yours,” he said.

The region includes the St. Johns River, Nassau River, portions of the St. Mary’s River, Orange Lake and the Santa Fe, Alapaha and Ichetucknee rivers.

To compensate for expected increase in water consumption, the plan relies heavily on increased water conservation, with conservation expected to account for 46 percent — or 54 million gallons per day throughout the region — by 2035.

Rick Hutton, an engineer who oversees water and wastewater planning at Gainesville Regional Utilities, was among the representatives of a coalition of utilities in the region who spoke in favor of the plan and its reliance on water conservation.

“Our customers have reduced their per capita water use by 28 percent since 2007,” Hutton said, adding that conservation had reduced overall water consumption for GRU by 18 percent “even though our population has increased by 13 percent.”

“We support the plan,” he said.

Protesters hold handmade signs at a meeting of the governing boards of two water management districts approving a long-range plan for water use covering a vast, North Florida region. (Image: Susan Washington)
Map provided by St. Johns River Water Management District
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