Florida Supreme Court Archives - Florida Politics

U.S. Supreme Court rejects appeal by Florida judge

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to take up an appeal by a Central Florida circuit judge, who was disciplined by the state Supreme Court for a misleading ad during a 2014 election campaign.

Judge Kim Shepard, who hears cases in Orange County, raised First Amendment arguments in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a challenge to the disciplinary actions.

The U.S. Supreme Court, as is common, did not explain its reasons for refusing to take up the case.

The Florida Supreme Court last year publicly reprimanded Shepard and imposed a 90-day suspension after an investigation by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. The investigation focused on an Orlando Sentinel endorsement that Shepard received in 1994 for a state House campaign.

In the 2014 judicial race, the newspaper endorsed Shepard’s opponent, Norberto Katz, whom Shepard defeated.

By deleting the date of the endorsement and references to the House race, Shepard deceptively made it appear in an advertisement that she had been endorsed by the Sentinel in the judicial race, a hearing panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission found.

In issuing the public reprimand in August, Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said the ad “misled” the public.

“The First Amendment does not create a free pass for judicial candidates to distort facts or misrepresent themselves or their opponents in their campaigns,” Labarga said.

But in a document filed last month with the U.S. Supreme Court, Shepard’s attorneys argued that the case raised a question about the proper First Amendment standard for regulating “misleading” campaign speech that is not false.

“In this case, it was never alleged that petitioner, Judge Kimberly Shepard, falsely claimed the Orlando Sentinel endorsed her 2014 campaign for judicial office. The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission acknowledged that her campaign materials included a full copy of a 1994 Orlando Sentinel article praising her integrity and legislative service that the flyer for which she was sanctioned quoted in part,” the document said. “Nor were there any allegations or findings that the statements in her campaign materials were false. … For First Amendment purposes, there is a vast difference between publishing a knowingly false statement and issuing one that might be misunderstood.”

Panel approves changes to judicial appointments

The Constitution Revision Commission is considering a measure that could settle future disputes over the appointment of Florida Supreme Court justices, but the proposal will do nothing to resolve a constitutional crisis looming early next year.

At question is whether Gov. Rick Scott or his successor, the winner of the 2018 governor’s race, will pick the replacements for three justices — Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince — whose terms end as Scott’s tenure comes to a close in early January 2019.

Scott has asserted the right to appoint the new justices, which could change the ideological balance of the court. The Supreme Court last month dismissed a challenge focused on who has the power to appoint the justices, deciding that it was too early to rule on the issue.

A proposal unanimously approved by the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee on Friday would resolve that issue for future appointments by changing the mandatory retirement date for members of the Supreme Court, the five state appellate courts and for circuit and county judges.

The measure (Proposal 41), sponsored by Commissioner Bill Schifino of Tampa, would require justices and judges to retire on their birthdays once they reach the age of 75.

It would replace the current system where judges must retire when they reach the age of 70 but are allowed to finish their terms. Under that provision, the three Supreme Court justices have reached their mandatory retirement age but are serving out terms which end Jan. 9, which is also the day the next governor will take office.

However, Schifino’s proposal, if adopted by the full CRC and approved by 60 percent of the voters next fall, would not take effect until July 2019, meaning it would have no impact on the current appointment dispute.

Schifino, a former Florida Bar president, told The News Service of Florida he saw the CRC’s role as considering long-term constitutional changes rather than getting involved in trying to resolve more immediate disputes.

“We’re not here to fix a particular issue that is before us today,” Schifino said. “We’re thinking very long term.”

A major element of Schifino’s proposal would raise the mandatory retirement age for the justices and judges to 75.

Schifino said when the original 70-year-old limit was set in the state constitution decades ago, life expectancy was much shorter than the current projection of about 80 years for U.S. residents.

“I think it makes good, good sense to keep good, experienced judges on the bench,” he said.

Schifino also noted that the federal judicial system has no age limit for judges, including members of the U.S. Supreme Court. There are no age limits for other state government members, he said.

“I can’t think of another elected official or appointed official or anyone in the executive or legislative branches that has a mandatory retirement age,” Schifino said.

And although the proposal would not resolve the existing Supreme Court appointment dispute, Schifino said the imposition of a “drop dead” retirement date on a judge’s birthday would prevent future occurrences of multiple court vacancies on the same day.

“You won’t see this problem again,” he said.

Commissioner John Stemberger of Orlando, who is co-sponsoring the measure, told the CRC’s Judicial Committee earlier on Friday that he had talked to current and retired Supreme Court justices who supported a more orderly retirement and appointment process.

“They explained to me that having two or three justices retire on the same day does not provide the kind of continuity and stability to the court that is really best,” Stemberger said. “A better policy is to have the justices actually retire on their actual birthdays.”

Schifino’s proposal is now ready for consideration by the full commission, where it eventually must garner at least 22 votes to be placed on the November general election ballot.

Orange County appealing to Supreme Court in battle over non-partisan or partisan elections

A three-year fight over non-partisan elections in Orange County may be headed for the Florida Supreme Court — with the prospect of affecting county elections throughout the state.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs announced Monday she wants the state’s high court to consider whether Orange County — and other charter counties like it — can decide to make key county-wide elected offices such as sheriff, tax collector and property appraiser become non-partisan in elections.

Under Jacobs’ direction, Orange County tried to do so, twice, with county-wide charter amendment elections in 2014 and ’16. Both times voters overwhelmingly agreed with her effort to take partisan labels out of elections for those offices.

But the courts, most recently Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals last month, held against the results of those charter amendment elections. The courts ruled that Orange County does not have the authority to take offices initially created as partisan-election offices by the state, and transform them into non-partisan, even by asking voters.

On Monday, in announcing she and Orange County were appealing to the Florida Supreme Court, Jacobs said she was pursuing “the will of the voters;” and also fighting for county rights, for Orange County and other charter counties that already have taken, or might wish to take, partisan divides out of county-office elections.

“What’s at stake if we let that [appeals court] decision stand? Well, first and foremost, at stake is a very clear and decisive will of the [Orange  County] electorate, expressed by an overwhelming 70 percent, not once, but twice in the last three years, will not be honored, will not be upheld,” Jacobs said. “Second, the citizens of Orange County and other counties in this district will have less rights of self government than all other charter counties in the state of Florida. How can that possibly be right?”

Her appeal is a bit of a gambit that could have statewide ramifications: There currently are several charter counties that have what Jacobs wants in Orange County. None of them, however, is in the jurisdiction of Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals. If the Florida Supreme Court rules against her and upholds the lower courts’ decisions against Orange County, the ruling could make law affecting all Florida counties.

Jacobs insisted, as she has all along, that she is not fighting a partisan battle. Rather, she has insisted she wants to ensure that county voters can fill county-wide offices without partisan races, which she insists makes local government less-partisan in its approach to both elections and day-to-day governing. In Orange, the mayor’s office and those of county commissioners are non-partisan, as are municipal offices, school board offices and others. County-wide offices for sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, clerk of courts, and supervisor of elections are partisan, typically pitting Democrats and Republicans in elections.

On Monday Jacobs also went to lengths to talk about the rising prominence of independent voters, who now make up more than 30 percent of the county’s voting base. She insisted she is fighting to make sure voters don’t have to consider parties when voting, something apparently more and more popular among voters.

Yet the fight has very real partisan overtones, and Jacobs’ opponents insist it’s been partisan from the beginning. Jacobs is Republican, and Republicans controlled both the County Commission and the Orange County Charter Review Commission when those boards decided to ask voters to make the county-wide offices non-partisan.

They did so during an era when Orange County Republicans are losing their voting base, and Democrats are gaining. Today the county’s voter rolls are 42 percent Democrat, 31 percent independent or “other,” and 27 percent Republican.

Before the questions could even appear on the ballot, first in 2014, then in 2016, Democrats in several of the affected offices, who saw the effort possibly as a Republican way to make them more vulnerable in future elections, sued to stop the charter amendment elections. When the charter-amendment elections went forward anyway, they continued to pursue the cases to overturn the results, contending the questions should never have appeared on the ballots. Specifically, Sheriff Jerry Demings, Tax Collector Scott Randolph, and Property Appraiser Rick Singh sued.

Randolph called Jacobs’ decision Monday to appeal to the Supreme Court “a bad decision and a shame, just like when she appealed it the first time. I think we fully expect the Supreme Court to rule just like the other two courts have on that issue.

“Trust me, this has nothing to do, in her mind, with voters,” Randolph alleged. “This is about protecting the Republican Party’s chances of winning races in Orange County.

“But at the end of the day the charter amendment is unconstitutional. It should have never been put on the ballot in the first place. And at the end of the day, even the mayor has to follow the law,” he continued.

Florida Supreme Court

5 Florida legal issues to watch in 2018

From the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington to a Tallahassee courthouse, Florida’s high-profile legal battles in 2018 will focus on issues ranging from a water war to medical marijuana.

With thousands of lawsuits moving through state and federal courts, it’s impossible to list — or foresee — all the major legal disputes that that will play out in the new year. But here are five to watch:

Water War

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in a long-running water battle between Florida and Georgia. The crux of the issue: Florida contends that Georgia is siphoning too much water in northern parts of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, damaging the Apalachicola River and the oyster industry in Franklin County’s Apalachicola Bay. But a special master appointed by the Supreme Court recommended that Florida should be denied relief. Georgia has argued that limits on its water use would undermine the state’s economy, including the growth of the Atlanta area and the agriculture industry in Southeast Georgia.

First Amendment

Each year, the U.S. Supreme Court receives 7,000 to 8,000 appeals and agrees to hear roughly 80 cases. But Palm Beach County government critic Fane Lozman beat those long odds, as the Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 27 in a First Amendment case that stems from Lozman’s arrest as he spoke during a Riviera Beach City Council meeting. Lozman accused the city of violating his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him, in part, for his outspoken criticism. Lower courts sided with the city, which argued that a police officer had “probable cause” to arrest Lozman, who had refused to comply with directions from a council member.

Hazing

Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion‘s death in 2011 during a hazing incident drew national attention and spurred prosecutions of other members of the school’s famed “Marching 100.” But the Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 7 in an appeal by Dante Martin, a band member who was sent to prison in Champion’s death. Martin, who was found guilty of manslaughter, felony hazing resulting in death and two counts of misdemeanor hazing, contends the state’s hazing law is unconstitutional, at least in part because it is overly broad. Champion was injured during a band ritual known as “crossing Bus C,” which involved band members being struck repeatedly as they crossed from the front of a bus to the back.

Medical Marijuana

Florida voters in November 2016 approved a constitutional amendment to broadly legalize medical marijuana. More than a year later, however, legal battles continue about how the state should carry out the amendment. Orlando attorney John Morgan, who largely bankrolled the 2016 ballot initiative, has filed the high-profile case, arguing that lawmakers violated the constitutional amendment by passing a measure that bars smoking medical marijuana. A Leon County circuit judge is scheduled to hear arguments Jan. 25 about whether she should dismiss Morgan’s lawsuit. Other pending cases involve issues such as the constitutionality of a law that calls for issuing a highly coveted marijuana license to a black farmer. Another case challenges the constitutionality of a preference for the citrus industry in awarding marijuana licenses.

Education Fight

In the education world, it’s known simply as HB 7069 — a massive bill that House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, shepherded to passage at the end of the 2017 Legislative Session. At least 14 county school boards have filed two constitutional challenges to the law, contending in part that it undermines local control of public schools. The pending challenges, filed in Leon County circuit court, focus on issues such as part of the law that requires school boards to share with charter schools a portion of property-tax revenues used for building projects. School boards filed another case directly to the Florida Supreme Court, though justices said last month the dispute should first be heard in circuit court.

Legal fees increase in workers’ comp system

Injured workers racked up nearly $186 million in approved legal fees in 2016-2017, a 36 percent increase from the previous year, a state report on the workers’ compensation insurance system shows.

In all, attorneys’ fees in the workers compensation system totaled nearly $440 million during the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The majority — nearly $254 million — were forked out by employers defending workers’ compensation claims.

Issued by the Office of the Judges of Compensation Claims, the 2016-2017 annual report notes that $185.6 million in approved legal fees for injured workers is the highest amount paid in nearly a decade and is attributable to a 2016 Florida Supreme Court ruling.

“Clearly, there is a trend suggested of increasing claimant attorneys’ fees in the wake of (the ruling),” the report, released last month, notes.

The report shows that in 2016-2017, more than $75 million in hourly fees were approved for claimants’ attorneys, a nearly 200 percent increase from the $25.8 million in hourly fees that were approved the previous year.

During the same period, the report shows that fees paid to workers’ compensation attorneys under legislatively approved fee caps decreased about 31 percent.

It is the second consecutive year that legal fees increased for injured workers and employers and reverses what had been a five-year trend of lower legal costs for both sides in workers’ compensation cases.

Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system meant to protect workers and employers. It is supposed to provide workers who are injured on the job access to medical benefits they need to be made whole. Those who are injured for at least eight days also are entitled to indemnity benefits, or lost wages. In exchange for providing those benefits, employers generally cannot be sued in court for causing injuries.

While the system is supposed to be self-executing, injured workers hire attorneys when there are disputes over the amounts of benefits they should receive.

Florida businesses faced some of the highest workers’ compensation costs in the country in the early 2000s. Business interests argued that attorney involvement — legal fees in the aggregate totaled $427 million in fiscal year 2002-2003 — was the reason for the high costs.

The Legislature responded by passing a sweeping rewrite of the workers’ compensation system in 2003 that, among other things, tied the recovery of plaintiff attorneys’ fees to percentages of the amount of recovered benefits. The law was tweaked in 2009 to make clear that workers’ compensation judges were precluded from awarding additional hourly fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys.

But in a 2016 ruling known as Castellanos v. Next Door Company, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the restrictive fee caps violated injured workers’ due process rights and authorized judges to award fees outside the fee schedule if adhering to it yielded unreasonable results.

Business interests lobbied the Legislature earlier this year to, at a minimum, limit the hourly rates that attorneys could charge. But lawmakers did not approve a change.

Despite the marked increase in legal costs for 2016-2017, the report notes that when adjusted for inflation, aggregate attorneys’ fees in Florida workers’ compensation have decreased by more than $100 million over the past 14 years.

High-profile Florida Supreme Court cases still hanging fire at year’s end

Partly because they came late to the court this year, some high-profile cases before the Florida Supreme Court will remain unresolved by the close of 2017.

As of this writing, the court’s weekly opinion release was going to be on holiday hiatus until Jan. 11, though “out-of-calendar releases” are still possible, a spokesman said.

Here are a few of those pending matters, starting with the court’s official summary:

— Herssein & Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association: “This case asks whether judges commit an ethical violation if they are Facebook ‘friends’ with litigants in cases pending before them.”

The justices decided to weigh in after an August ruling by the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal that rejected a request to disqualify Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko.

The dispute stems from Butchko being a Facebook friend of attorney Israel Reyes, who was hired to represent an insurance-company executive in a case before her.

The Herssein Law Group is seeking the disqualification; it sued a former client, United Services Automobile Association, for alleged breach of contract and fraud.

— School Board of Alachua County v. Richard Corcoran: “This case involves a challenge to an education bill passed by the 2017 Legislature.”

A group of school boards is asking the court to block a wide-ranging education law passed this May. The boards filed a constitutional challenge to the bill, known by its number, HB 7069.

The 274-page bill, backed by House Speaker Corcoran, deals with controversial subjects such as charter schools and teacher bonuses. The challenge contends that the law violates part of the Florida Constitution that requires legislation to deal with single subjects.

Those named in the case are the school boards of Alachua, Bay, Broward, Hamilton, Lee, Polk, St. Lucie, Volusia and Wakulla counties.

(Ed. Note: The Supreme Court has since transferred the case to a Tallahassee trial court to handle.)

— International Association of Firefighters v. State of Florida: “This case involves a challenge to the Governor’s 2015 veto of firefighter pay raises.”

The union wants the court to strike down Gov. Rick Scott‘s 2015 veto of pay raises for the state’s firefighters.

The 1st District Court of Appeal previously ruled that Scott’s veto of $2,000 pay raises did not violate collective-bargaining rights. That court said Scott acted within his authority to veto spending items in the state budget, and that lawmakers could have overridden the veto but did not.

The Legislature included the $2,000 raises for firefighters in budget fine print known as “proviso” language, which Scott subsequently vetoed.

Attorneys for the state say the appeals court “merely applied a clearly articulated constitutional right” of the governor to veto spending items.

— Dante Martin v. State of Florida: “This case challenges criminal convictions related to a college hazing incident.”

Martin is appealing his convictions in the 2011 hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion. Oral argument is set for Feb. 7.

Martin and Champion were both members of the school’s famed “Marching 100” band. Champion, 26, succumbed to internal injuries after a brutal beating ritual with fists, mallets and drumsticks in a band bus that was parked outside a game in Orlando.

According to an Associated Press story, “the case brought into focus the culture of hazing in the band, which was suspended for more than a year while officials tried to clean up the program.”

Martin, now 30, was sentenced in 2015 to 6 years and 5 months in prison on felony manslaughter and hazing charges, according to the Department of Corrections website. He is currently serving his time in the Wakulla Work Camp, with a release date of April 2020.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this post, republished with permission.

Jim Rosica’s review of top state government stories of 2017

Spoiler alert: If you’re a regular of this site, and reading this story, you can guess what the #1 pick is.

Otherwise, 2017 still offered a bounty of material to Tallahassee’s reporting ranks. We still chuckle at the uninitiated who ask, “What do you write about when the Legislature isn’t in session?”

Without further ado, here’s the admittedly subjective list of the Top 10 (and a half) stories to come out of the Capitol in the Year That Was:

#10 — State finally passes ride-sharing legislation: After years of trying, lawmakers OK’d, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, a bill (HB 221) creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft. In fact, lawmakers had considered such legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger. When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

The losers? Local governments, whose attempts to regulate or rein in ride-share got pre-empted, and, well, taxi companies.

#9 — Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala and the debate over the death penalty: Ayala, a Democrat and the Orlando area’s top prosecutor, enraged Scott and conservative lawmakers when she announced in March she would not seek capital punishment in any murder cases.

Scott, a Naples Republican, began unilaterally reassigning death penalty-eligible cases to another state attorney. Republican Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs called for Ayala to be removed from office for dereliction of duty.

The controversy made it to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled Scott has the authority to transfer murder cases away because she refuses to pursue death. Ayala, elected in 2016, responded by announcing she would set up a special panel to review the death penalty’s appropriateness of each case.

But as of this month, Ayala and Scott were still sniping, with the governor accusing her of missing a deadline and blowing a capital punishment prosecution. Ayala denied that but did cut a plea deal with Emerita Mapp, in which she pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence for a Kissimmee slaying.

#8 — Puerto Rico migration could remake Central Florida: With many still without power after Hurricane Maria slammed the island in September, more than 250,000 residents of Puerto Rico have now decamped to Florida, most to the Central Florida region, with one advocate calling it a “migration of biblical proportions.”

Curbed said the “sudden influx will also put pressure on housing, social services, and the job market that have yet to be fully addressed by state, local, and federal officials.”

But Scott ordered the opening of “disaster relief centers” providing state services to thousands. Cortes filed a bill to address housing needs for evacuees. Sen. Vic Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat, pressed FEMA to provide more housing relief. U.S. Reps. Darren SotoStephanie Murphy, and Dennis Ross co-signed a letter to the feds for Florida get its full funding as a host state to support the migration.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is working on a plan to allow Puerto Rican high schoolers to receive Puerto Rico diplomas in Florida, in case they can’t meet Florida’s graduation requirements. And those are just a few examples.

#7 — The fight over HB 7069: The wide-ranging education law passed this May — a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran — has been called a “brew of bad policy” and “a textbook example of a failure in government transparency” by opponents.

They say it will benefit charter schools to the detriment of traditional public schools. Supporters counter that it “helps all students” by holding failing public schools to account.

The law offers all kinds of changes, including requiring recess and reducing mandatory testing. It accelerates state tax dollar funding to for-profit and nonprofit charter and private schools, expands parents’ abilities to choose schools, and tightens Tallahassee’s control over what local school boards can and cannot do.

A group of school boards sued in the Supreme Court to block the law; the justices, in a 4-3 decision, have since transferred the case to a Tallahassee trial court to handle. 

#6 — Enterprise Florida, VISIT FLORIDA survive a hit: Corcoran went full frontal this year, trying to scuttle Scott’s favored organizations and a multitude of business incentives last Legislative Session.

He derided Enterprise Florida, the state’s jobs-creating organization, as little more than a dispenser of “corporate welfare.” Though a public-private partnership, it doles out mostly public dollars.

He slammed VISIT FLORIDA, the tourism marketing group, for secret deals and an overall lack of transparency. Scott and lawmakers eventually worked out a deal to save the agencies and create an $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, focused on promoting public infrastructure and job training.

Meantime, the organizations now are subject to heightened oversight. And Ken Lawson, the former DBPR secretary whom Scott moved to head the tourism agency, toured the state to meet with local tourism leaders. “I want to earn your trust and learn from you first hand. This has been a hard year for all of us,” he said.

#5 — Special elections churn the Legislature: The turnover in legislative seats began with former South Florida Sen. Frank Artiles resigning after an epithet-laden tirade against two black lawmakers was made public, eventually leading to the seat flipping to a Democrat, Annette TaddeoRepublican Jose Felix Diaz lost that race but had to resign the House to run, meaning his House seat is open.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson quit the House this year for health reasons; Republican Lawrence McClure won the District 58 seat in a December special election. Republican Alex Miller, just elected in 2016, also resigned her Sarasota-area House seat this summer. She cited a need to “spend more time at home than my service in the Legislature would allow.”

But wait — there’s more. Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens quit after his extramarital affair with a lobbyist came to light. Republican Neil Combee resigned the House to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the GOP’s Eric Eisnaugle also left the House to become an appellate judge, and Democrat Rep. Daisy Baez resigned before pleading guilty to perjury in a criminal case over her residency in Coral Gables-based House District 114.

#5(a) — Speaking of Artiles … : He resigned his Senate seat rather than face a hearing that could result in his expulsion. The Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at The Governors Club.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor, but Thurston filed a Senate rules complaint. Artiles, elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, initially called efforts to remove him politically motivated. (Sound familiar?)

#4 Speaking of Clemens … : The Lake Worth Democrat was the first in the Legislature this year to resign after reports of sexual misconduct. “I have made mistakes I ashamed of, and for the past six months I have been focused on becoming a better person,” he said in a statement to news media. 

“But it is clear to me that task is impossible to finish while in elected office. The process won’t allow it, and the people of Florida deserve better. All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better.”

Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader, apologized for having an affair with a lobbyist during the last legislative session. That woman “came into possession of Clemens’ laptop, gained access to all his contacts and personal information, then informed his wife of the tryst,” according to POLITICO Florida.

#3 — Jimmy Patronis replaces Jeff Atwater: Patronis had been a Panama City restaurateurstate representative and Public Service Commissioner when Scott tapped him to replace Atwater and become the state’s fourth Chief Financial Officer this June. Atwater quit his term early to become chief financial officer of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

As CFO, Patronis — a Scott loyalist — now is one vote on the Florida Cabinet, in addition to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. And he has since announced he will seek a full term as CFO in 2018.

The position heads a roughly 2,600-employee agency that includes the state treasury and insurance regulators, as well as being state fire marshal. The CFO also oversees management of the state’s multibillion-dollar financial portfolio. The office was created after the 1997-98 Constitution Revision Commission recommended collapsing several state departments into one, including Insurance, Treasury, State Fire Marshal and Banking and Finance.

#2 — The politics and policy of Hurricane Irma responseIrma’s size and strength put the entire state on notice; thousands of residents and visitors left in advance of catastrophic winds and flooding.

The most significant casualties were in a South Florida nursing home. The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was evacuated Sept. 13 after the facility lost power to its air conditioning system. Eight elderly residents died, with another six perishing in the weeks that followed. Most died from heat exposure. The deaths were later classified as homicides, with a police spokeswoman saying, “Who gets charged is part of the continuing investigation.”

Scott took his own heat after Democrats charged that he had ignored calls for help from the home’s administrators to his personal mobile phone; he said his staff took the messages and forwarded them to the appropriate state officials.

The governor also ordered an emergency generator rule to “ensur(e) that facilities across Florida are coming into compliance and are installing generators to keep their patients safe during a disaster,” he said. But the facilities themselves challenged that move.

The Florida House formed its own special panel to consider the state’s readiness to deal with monster hurricanes. The Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness has been meeting since October. 

#1 — Jack Latvala quits the SenateIn the face of two damning reports on his alleged serial sexual harassment, Latvala turned in his resignation, not effective till Jan. 5, on Dec. 20.

The Clearwater Republican said in a statement he “never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate.” He first served in the Senate 1994-2002, then returned in 2010. Latvala was term-limited next year.

In his characteristically defiant manner, he said: “Political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.” The 66-year-old Latvala admitted, however, that he “ … perhaps (had not) kept up with political correctness in my comments as well as I should have.”

An investigative report found Latvala “on multiple occasions” offered to trade his vote for sex with an unnamed female lobbyist. That bombshell came toward the end of retired appellate Judge Ronald V. Swanson‘s report into a complaint filed by Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top aide to future Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Perrin Rogers accused Latvala of sexually harassing her and assaulting her on a number of occasions over several years. A second investigation into sexual harassment claims against Latvala, prompted by a POLITICO Florida story, turned up another witness who bolstered an allegation that the senator would offer to trade sex for favorable votes on legislation.

Florida Supreme Court decides to punt away HB 7069 challenge

In a 4-3 decision Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court handed over a constitutional challenge to a contentious education law to a local court to handle.

Without explanation, the Supreme Court transferred the matter (SC17-1996) to the 2nd Judicial Circuit, headquartered across the street from the Capitol.

School Board of Alachua County v. House Speaker Richard Corcoran “involves a challenge to an education bill (HB 7069) passed by the 2017 Legislature,” the case’s official summary says.

A group of school boards want the court to block the law, championed by Corcoran.

“The 274-page bill makes many changes to state law, ranging from requiring elementary schools to offer daily recess and making it easier for teachers to win bonuses to letting charter schools get a share of school district construction money and making it easier for charters to move into areas with low-performing traditional public schools,” the Palm Beach Post explained.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga joined with conservative Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson to transfer the case.

Left-leaning Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy A. Quince “would request responses,” the order said.

“The transfer of this case should not be construed as an adjudication or comment on the merits of the petition, nor as a determination that the transferee court has jurisdiction or that the petition has been properly denominated as a petition for writs of quo warranto and writs of mandamus,” said the court’s order.

“The transferee court should not interpret the transfer of this case as an indication that it must or should reach the merits of the petition,” it added. “The transferee court shall treat the petition as if it had been originally filed there … and is instructed to consider expediting the petition as it appears to be time sensitive based upon the allegations.

“However, a determination to expedite consideration is at the discretion of the transferee court,” the order said. “… No motion for rehearing will be entertained.”

Besides Alachua, the school boards of Bay, Broward, Hamilton, Lee, Polk, St. Lucie, Volusia and Wakulla counties joined the suit.

Its claims are that the law breaks the single-subject requirement in the Florida Constitution, its “title is overly generic and encompasses legislation on a wide variety of subjects,” and is a “prototypical example of logrolled’ legislation.”

‘We decline’: Court tosses challenge to Rick Scott’s appointment power

Saying the issue wasn’t ready for judicial review, the state’s highest court Thursday dismissed a challenge to Gov. Rick Scott‘s  power to appoint three new justices on his last day in office in 2019.

In a 6-1 decision, the Florida Supreme Court said it couldn’t step into the controversy because the governor hasn’t taken any action yet.

The three justices who are retiring and will be replaced took issue with the decision, though two of them agreed with the result. The third called Scott’s intentions “blatantly unconstitutional.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause filed the case in June. Their unstated concern was that Scott, a Naples Republican, would pack the court with more conservatives.

Although Scott has said he intended to make the picks on his way out the door, “clearly no appointments have been made,” according to the per curiam opinion. “To review an action which is merely contemplated but not consummated, as in the present case, would require this Court to depart from historical” precedent.

“This we decline to do. Until some action is taken by the Governor, the matter the League seeks to have resolved is not ripe, and this Court lacks jurisdiction to determine whether … relief is warranted,” the opinion said.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, usually a swing vote, joined with the court’s conservatives: Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson, its newest member.

Soon-to-retire Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy A. Quince concurred, but said “the majority ignores that we have previously granted a petition … challenging the Governor’s authority to endeavor to fill a judicial vacancy.” That refers to a case over an empty county court judgeship.

“Under this Court’s precedent, we have the authority to act prior to the Governor’s making an appointment that is contrary to law,” their opinion said.

Justice R. Fred Lewis, the third of the justices who will retire on the same day Scott leaves office, dissented and called Scott’s proposed actions “blatantly unconstitutional.”

“Future Floridians have lost the ability to protect themselves and society from clearly unconstitutional action,” he wrote. “The Florida Constitution requires devoted protection and the Florida citizens deserve better.”

The suit challenged Scott’s ability to name successors for Pariente, Quince and Lewis—the court’s liberal-leaning triumvirate. Only the governor elected after Scott can, the plaintiffs said.

Scott has said he plans to name their replacements the morning of his last day in office, Jan. 8, 2019. His attorneys argued that their age-mandated retirements also will become effective that Jan. 8.

The League and Common Cause countered that the governor can’t replace the justices because he’ll be out of office earlier on the same day they retire, and their final judicial terms last till midnight.

The case also included a short-lived dispute over comments Labarga and Pariente made in a conversation caught on a “hot mic”  after the Nov. 1 oral argument.

Scott’s lawyers tried but failed to have Pariente disqualified from the case, saying snippets of what could be heard were “disparaging remarks.” The court denied the request.

Supreme Court to rule on judge, Facebook friend

With potential ramifications in courthouses across the state, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday said it will take up a dispute about whether a judge should be disqualified from a case because she is a Facebook friend with a lawyer.

Justices issued an order saying they will consider an appeal of an August ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal that rejected a request to disqualify Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko. The dispute stems from Butchko being a Facebook friend of attorney Israel Reyes, who was hired to represent an insurance-company executive in a case before her.

The Herssein Law Group, which had sued a former client, United Services Automobile Association, for alleged breach of contract and fraud, is seeking the disqualification. In a Supreme Court brief filed in October, the Herssein Law Group said the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruling conflicted with an earlier decision of the 4th District Court of Appeal that said a judge should be disqualified from a criminal case because of being Facebook friends with a prosecutor.

“The Third District Court of Appeal’s opinion, therefore, creates completely different standards for judges in Florida, depending on which district the judge sits in, to determine when and whether they are violating the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct,” the brief said. “This is untenable for both judges and the public perception of the judiciary. The application and interpretation of the Code of Judicial Conduct must be uniform for all judges in the state of Florida.”

Attorneys for the insurance company, however, filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to turn down the case. They argued, in part, that the Herssein case has different circumstances from the earlier case involving a prosecutor.

“Further, petitioners (the Herssein Law Group) are sophisticated litigators who have practiced in Miami-Dade County for many years,” the insurance-company brief said. “It is highly questionable whether any reasonably prudent person in petitioners’ situation would have a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial simply because the trial judge and Reyes are Facebook `friends.’ “

The Supreme Court, as is standard, did not explain its reasons for deciding to take up the case. It said it would schedule oral arguments in a separate order.

In its ruling in August, the 3rd District Court of Appeal concluded 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 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.”

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