Florida Supreme Court Archives - Florida Politics

Justices reject resentencing in 1976 murder

In a case stemming from the 1976 strangulation of a 13-year-old girl, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected arguments that a Death Row inmate should receive a new sentencing hearing.

The arguments by attorneys for inmate James Ernest Hitchcock were rooted in a major 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and subsequent Florida decisions that have led to requiring unanimous jury recommendations before defendants can be sentenced to death.

With Hitchcock sent to Death Row after a 10-2 jury recommendation, his attorneys argued that the new unanimity standard should retroactively apply to his case and lead to a new sentencing hearing.

But justices, as they have done recently in other cases, rejected the idea that the unanimity requirement should be applied to such old cases. The opinion was fully shared by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Peggy Quince, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson, while justices R. Fred Lewis and Charles Canady concurred without signing on to the majority opinion.

Justice Barbara Pariente dissented and pointed, in part, to the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

“Reliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable,” Pariente wrote.

Hitchcock, now 61, was convicted in the murder of his brother’s 13-year-old stepdaughter in Orange County, according to court documents. He was accused of going into the girl’s bedroom in the middle of the night, having sexual intercourse with her and then killing her when she said she was going to tell her mother.

Hitchcock had to be resentenced three times because of a series of U.S. Supreme Court and Florida Supreme Court rulings in his case. In his final sentencing proceeding, the jury voted 10-2 to recommend the death penalty, and the Florida Supreme Court upheld that sentence in 2000.

Thursday’s ruling stemmed, in part, from a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries. That ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, has spawned extensive litigation about death-penalty cases and legislation to change the sentencing system.

As part of that litigation, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that juries are required to make unanimous recommendations before judges can sentence defendants to death. Florida long allowed majorities of juries to recommend death sentences.

Also, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the unanimity standard should apply to cases dating back to 2002. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, which was a key underpinning of the Hurst v. Florida decision.

Hitchcock and other longtime Death Row inmates have argued that the unanimity standard also should apply to cases decided before 2002. But the decision Thursday appeared to make clear that the Supreme Court will not go along with such arguments.

“Hitchcock is among those defendants whose death sentences were final before Ring, and his arguments do not compel departing from our precedent,” the majority opinion said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Rick Scott asks Supreme Court to toss out lawsuit over justices

Gov. Rick Scott is asking the state’s top court to throw out a lawsuit that aims to stop the Republican governor from appointing three Supreme Court justices on his last day in office.

Attorneys for Scott on Wednesday filed a response to a lawsuit filed last month by the League of Women Voters of Florida and government watchdog Common Cause.

The filing with the Supreme Court of Florida asserts the lawsuit should be rejected because it deals with something that may or may not happen in 2019.

Age limits could force three justices to retire on the day Scott leaves office in January 2019. Scott has said he plans to name their replacements that same morning.

The decision could change the ideological balance of the court for decades.

The governor’s filing is here. Previous coverage is here.

(Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press.)

Judge gives state 2 months to defend abortion waiting period

If the state thinks a law requiring women to wait 24 hours before getting an abortion is constitutional, it needs to prove it, a Tallahassee judge said during a Wednesday hearing.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis—a 28-year veteran of the bench—gave the Attorney General’s Office 60 days to develop evidence to counter a Supreme Court decision this February temporarily halting enforcement of the waiting period, passed in 2015.

Opponents say delays could lead to victims of domestic abuse being forced to forgo an abortion, or cause additional emotional distress for women who have a doomed pregnancy. Proponents counter the waiting period is necessary because the decision can’t be undone.

Julia Kaye, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing a Gainesville women’s clinic, later told reporters the “mandatory timeout” was an “insulting law,” and that Lewis’ move meant “Florida women will just have to wait a little longer for justice.”

Deputy Solicitor General Denise Harle had argued that the law doesn’t create significant burdens for women and was the “least intrusive” way to achieve a “compelling state interest.”

Harle suggested that evidence offered might include details of similar laws in other states, for example.

But the Supreme Court said there’s a strong likelihood that a lower court will determine the law is unconstitutional because the state had offered no evidence that the law in fact does address a compelling state interest.

(Background from The Associated Press, reprinted with permission.)

Gambling control amendment surpasses 100,000 signatures

A proposed constitutional amendment aimed at limiting gambling’s expansion in the state is now over the 100,000 signature mark.

Division of Elections records show the “Voter Control of Gambling” amendment now has 104,416 signatures toward getting on the 2018 statewide ballot.

But that’s still a long way from the 766,200 signatures needed for the initiative’s ballot placement.

“Our petition gathering effort is in full swing across the state of Florida,” said John Sowinski, who chairs Voters in Charge, the political committee behind the amendment. He added there is another roughly 300,000 signatures “in the pipeline” waiting to be verified.

“Tens of thousands of Floridians are signing the blue petition each week to ensure that voters, not politicians, have the exclusive authority to make gambling decisions in our state,” Sowinski said. “We look forward to reaching our goal of 766,200 valid petitions well ahead of the deadline and being on the 2018 General Election ballot.”

The amendment would “ensure that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling,” the ballot summary says.

Voters in Charge hadn’t raised money for nearly a year-and-a-half since opening in October 2015 with $195,000 in seed money from the No Casinos anti-gambling expansion organization.

Sowinski also heads No Casinos. The two are separate entities, however.

Since this March, Voters in Charge raised a total of almost $688,000, with $650,000 of that coming from Disney, a gambling opponent. The bulk of the committee’s spending, not surprisingly, is going to petition gathering and verification costs.

The Supreme Court already approved the amendment for ballot placement, though Justices Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis had dissented, saying “the ballot title and summary do not clearly inform the public that the proposed amendment may substantially affect slot machines approved by county-wide (referendums).”

That concern is moot since the same court has since also ruled unanimously that counties passing local referendums allowing slots will not be able to offer them because “nothing in (state gambling law) grants any authority to regulate slot machine gaming to any county.”

Squeezed: Supreme Court denies challenge of citrus veto

The Florida Supreme Court Thursday dismissed a challenge of Gov. Rick Scott‘s veto of reimbursements to homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were torn down by the state.

The homeowners had asked the court to undo Scott’s veto of more than $37 million by filing a petition for writ of mandamus, an order to an elected official to perform a certain action.

In a 6-1 decision, the court declined, mentioning lower court actions that had been filed.

“Because the governor’s constitutional line-item veto authority at issue in this case is a part of the process that results in ‘an appropriation made by law,’ we hereby dismiss this petition without prejudice to seek redress in pending circuit court actions,” the order said.

The Republican-controlled Legislature agreed to pay homeowners in both Broward and Lee counties whose trees were torn down in a failed attempt to eradicate citrus canker, “a bacterial disease of citrus that causes premature leaf and fruit drop,” according to the state’s Agriculture Department.

The money was to pay off judgments that had been won against the state. The remaining “pending” actions seek to compel that payment.

Justice Barbara Pariente “reluctantly” agreed, saying “the petitioners (had) obtained final judgments, the validity of which are not contested,” and “the Governor’s veto was based on misinformation that the litigation in these cases was still ongoing when that was not the case.”

Though she said the court undoing a veto “is not legally permissible,” Pariente added that the “petitioners have the right to full compensation. The time has come for the state to pay up.”

Justice R. Fred Lewis dissented: “(F)ull and complete compensation when private property is taken by a government is a foundational cornerstone of this democracy.”

The U.S. constitution promises “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation,” and the state constitution says “no private property shall be taken except for a public purpose and with full compensation … paid to each owner.”

“This is not a game and our citizens should not be toyed with as if a yo-yo, and yet that is exactly what this veto accomplishes,” Lewis wrote.

“Now, with the opportunity to stop this ten-year game of yo-yo, this court abdicates its responsibility when it allows state actors to disregard their constitutional obligation by playing further games of delay and obfuscation. Justice demands that it stop now.”

Scott spokesman John Tupps called the matter “unfortunate.”

“Gov. Scott sincerely understands their concern,” Tupps said in a statement. “Due to ongoing litigation, the $37.4 million in the budget was not approved. We are hopeful that all litigation regarding this issue will be completely resolved, allowing the issue to be addressed comprehensively across the state.”

(Background material provided by The Associated Press, reprinted with permission.)

Florida Bar will focus on ‘protecting the courts’ during constitutional revision process

The new president of The Florida Bar says the organization is standing by to offer “technical legal” support to the Constitution Revision Commission as it readies to amend the state’s governing document, which could include changes affecting the judicial branch. 

Higer

But Michael J. Higer, a partner in Berger Singerman’s Miami office, won’t say which public proposals already filed he favors—or fears. He assumed the Bar presidency on June 23. 

“It is too early in the process to focus on any one idea proposed by Florida’s citizens,” he said in an email interview. “But changing our Constitution should be done with caution, because once something is added, it is very difficult to repeal.

“That is why it is critical that we as a bar educate our members and the public so that they are fully informed and engaged in the CRC process.”

But a recent poll by Florida TaxWatch showed “77 percent of Florida voters said they haven’t heard about recent Constitution Revision Commission meetings.” Another 13 percent said they only saw, read or heard “a little” about the commission’s activities.

Higer said the Bar will be “working with its members statewide to educate their communities and encourage engagement in the process,” including a public education program in the fall.

My hope is that, if Florida’s citizens understand the issues, the work of the CRC will be beneficial to our state,” he said.

The 37-member commission meets every 20 years to review and offer changes to the state’s constitution. Gov. Rick Scott appointed the bulk of its current board, including chair Carlos Beruff, along with picks by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. Attorney General Pam Bondi also is a member.

This is the first commission to be appointed by a Republican majority, leading some to fear that amendments it offers will veer too far to the right. Any amendments it offers go straight to the 2018 statewide ballot, but still must pass with 60 percent approval.

The commission’s “focus will not be on strengthening” the judiciary, said Martha Barnett, a former president of the American Bar Association and 1997-98 member of the CRC.

Barnett said she instead expects an effort to “restrict, narrow and weaken the judicial branch.” She spoke at a panel discussion at The Associated Press’ annual Legislative Session planning meeting this January. “And if that happens, it is to the peril of the life and liberty of the people of this state.”

Lawmakers this year filed but did not pass several bills, including ones setting appellate-level judicial term limits and requiring the Supreme Court to report regularly on case delays.

The Florida Bar’s focus will be on protecting the courts, to make sure that they are fair, impartial, adequately funded and preserved as the third, separate branch of government,” Higer said. “Anything that impedes the operation of the courts would be a major concern.”

He added Bar leaders already have met with the CRC executive director Jeff Woodburn and general counsel William Spicola—both former members of Scott’s administration.

“The Bar has offered to assist the commission by providing legal subject matter experts on the various issues coming before the commission who may answer questions or provide analysis,” Higer said.

The CRC already has held nine public hearings across the state; the next hearing has not yet been set.

Miami judge: New stand-your-ground law is unconstitutional

A judge ruled Monday that Florida’s lawmakers overstepped their authority in updating the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

In ruling the law unconstitutional, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch said Monday that the changes should have been crafted by the Florida Supreme Court instead of by the Legislature.

The Miami Herald reports that the 14-page order is a victory for prosecutors who have firmly opposed the law. Critics have said the law makes it easier for defendants to get away with murder and other violent crimes.

The Legislature modified the 2005 statute and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law in June. The bill was backed by the National Rifle Association.

The controversial law has long been criticized for fostering a shoot-first mentality, which eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat before using deadly force in responding to an apparent threat. Prosecutors said the law made it easier for judges to dismiss criminal charges if they believe someone acted in self-defense.

The Herald reports that in Miami-Dade County, judges have tossed out several high-profile murder cases after pre-trial immunity hearings. But they’ve also allowed others to go to a jury. Now, the new law requires prosecutors to shoulder the burden of disproving a self-defense claim. State attorneys have said that essentially forces them to unfairly try a case twice, making it easier for criminals to escape justice.

Under the law, prosecutors must prove by “clear and convincing” evidence that someone wasn’t acting in self-defense.

The judge’s ruling likely will lead to legal wrangling in the appellate courts and the Florida Supreme Court. Kylie Mason, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Pam Bondi, told The Associated Press they would appeal the order.

Scott spokesman John Tupps also said the governor’s office is reviewing the judge’s ruling.

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

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Flags at half-staff to honor the ‘Whistling Justice’

The U.S. and state flags are at half-staff to honor the late Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald.

McDonald, in a 1986 photo. (Florida Supreme Court)

The body of McDonald, who died Saturday at the age of 93, lay in state Thursday in the rotunda of the Supreme Court building in Tallahassee.

Gov. Rick Scott ordered flags at half-staff “as a symbol of respect” at the Leon County Courthouse, Tallahassee City Hall, and the Capitol from sunrise to sunset.

The flags at the Court building were separately ordered at half-staff by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.

McDonald served for 15 years on the Court, from 1979-94, including a term as Chief Justice in 1986-88.

“He was well known for his down-to-earth manners, dim view of pomp, and a habit of whistling in the court hallways that earned him the nickname of the ‘Whistling Justice,’ ” the Governor’s Office press release said.

McDonald also served as a circuit Judge in Orange County and an interim judge on the then newly-formed 5th District Court of Appeal. He attended the University of Florida before serving in the Army’s 20th Armored Division during World War II, then got a law degree, also from UF.

He was profiled in the Tallahassee Democrat in 2004 as part of a story on justices who stay in Tallahassee after retirement. He resided with wife Ruth near Lake Jackson in Leon County.

“We’re just comfortable here,” he told the paper. “We’re still happy with this community. It’s a good place to stay.”

McDonald’s obituary is here.

Florida Supreme Court throws out 4 death sentences

The Florida Supreme Court is ordering new sentencing hearings for four inmates currently on the state’s death row, including one of three women residing there.

The high court on Thursday threw out the sentences because a jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty in the cases. The Court ruled last year that death sentences have to be unanimous, and anyone sentenced after a 2002 ruling could be eligible for a new sentence.

Among those getting a new hearing is Tiffany Ann Cole. She was convicted for her role in the 2005 murders of a Jacksonville couple that was buried alive.

The court also ordered a new sentencing hearing for Michael Bargo, who was convicted for taking part in 2011 the murder and torture of a Marion County teenager.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Former South Florida lawmaker suspended from practicing law

Attorney and former state Rep. Phillip J. Brutus, the first Haitian-American elected to the Legislature, has been suspended from practicing law for one year, The Florida Bar announced Thursday.

The suspension became effective June 3. Brutus, of Lauderdale Lakes, also will be on probation for two years after his reinstatement, according to a disciplinary order by the Florida Supreme Court.

He was further ordered to reimburse the Bar for costs of $11,787.50, records show.

“In handling a (divorce) proceeding, Brutus disbursed funds from the former husband to the client and himself, and the remainder to costs, without a court order or settlement agreement indicating how the money would be disbursed,” the Bar’s press release said.

“A Bar audit also found that Brutus did not properly maintain his trust account in accordance with rules,” it added. “Between July and September 2010, there were at least three overdrafts.”

“A lawyer who receives funds that belong to a client must first place those funds in a trust account separate from the lawyer’s own money,” a LexisNexis white paper explained.

Brutus, who served in the House 2000-06 as a Democrat from North Miami, has been running “unsuccessful races for County Commission, Florida Senate and Congress since 2006,” the Miami Herald has reported.

Most recently, he ran for the Senate District 38 seat last year, now held by Daphne Campbell. Brutus was first admitted to law practice in Florida in 1987.

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