Florida Supreme Court Archives - Page 3 of 42 - Florida Politics

Florida tries again to fix death-penalty law

Florida lawmakers are trying for the second year in a row to fix the state’s death penalty law.

The Senate on Thursday voted unanimously to require a unanimous jury decision to impose the death penalty. The House is also prepared for a vote on the issue. It could be the first major bill sent to Gov. Rick Scott this year.

The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges.

Last year, a bill requiring a 10-2 jury vote was enacted. The state Supreme Court struck it down in October, saying a unanimous decision was needed.

The Republican-dominated Legislature isn’t happy about having to make the fix, but lawmakers say their hands are tied by the court.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Smoker’s widow fights for multimillion-dollar jury award

A lawyer for the widow of a Florida man “addict(ed) to cigarettes” asked the state Supreme Court Monday to reinstate her $30 million jury award for punitive damages.

Tallahassee attorney John S. Mills, who represents Joan Schoeff, told the court the conduct of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.(RJR)—in selling a product they knew was killing 500,000 people a year—stopped just short of “intentional genocide.”

Mills called RJR “the worst of the worst,” saying the cigarette maker was aware their customers “were going to die and continued (selling cigarettes) to make money.”

The suit is one of many Engle progeny cases in which the court, after a monumental 1994 class action, allowed individual smokers with claims against tobacco companies to each sue for their own damages.

The case is being closely watched by the state’s trial attorneys.

State Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat and longtime civil-trial lawyer, had filed a friend-of-the-court brief for the Florida Justice Association, formerly known as the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.

At trial, a jury found smoker James E. Schoeff 25 percent at fault in his death, “from lung cancer caused by his addiction to cigarettes,” according to court documents.

Jurors awarded his wife, Joan Schoeff, $10.5 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages, even after her lawyer asked jurors not to go above $25 million.

The trial judge later reduced the compensatory damages award to almost $7.9 million but let stand the punitive damages amount. R.J. Reynolds appealed, calling the punitive damages “unconstitutionally excessive.”

The 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach agreed with RJR that the award “falls on the excessive side of the spectrum,” according to its opinion. One judge in the three-judge panel dissented. Schoeff then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Justice Peggy A. Quince noted that the lawyer at trial asked for Schoeff’s fault in his death to be factored into damages. Mills explained that was because “we didn’t know if we were going to win.”

Donald B. Ayer, representing RJR, faulted jury instructions that he said confused jurors about how to decide the harm caused to Schoeff. 

“Why would we, as a matter of law, decide that the core of the action is negligence versus … the intentional wrongdoing of the tobacco industry over decades?” Justice Barbara Pariente asked.

“There’s no question that it’s harm from a product,” Ayer said. Product liability claims generally are founded in negligence, which is about carelessness, not intent.

The court, as usual, did not indicate when it would rule.

Florida Supreme Court considers voting rights amendment

The Florida Supreme Court is being asked to approve the wording of a proposed amendment that could allow convicted criminals to vote.

Backers of the amendment went before the high court on Monday. Justices must decide whether the amendment is misleading.

Florida’s constitution bars people convicted of felonies from being able to vote after they have left prison. Convicted felons must ask to have their voting rights restored.

The amendment would allow most convicts to have their rights automatically restored after they have completed their prison sentence. Felons convicted of murder or a sexual offense would not be eligible.

Amendment supporters still must gather more than 700,000 signatures to place the amendment on the 2018 ballot.

An attorney for Attorney General Pam Bondi said she is not taking a stance on the amendment wording.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida Supreme Court upholds ban on openly carrying guns

The Florida Supreme Court says there’s nothing wrong with a state law that bans openly carrying handguns.

In a 4-2 decision Thursday, the court rejected a claim that the law is unconstitutional because it restricts the federally protected right to bear arms.

Concealed weapons permit holder Dale Norman was arrested by Fort Pierce police in 2012 because his gun was visible as he walked down a sidewalk.

He was convicted of a second-degree misdemeanor but appealed his conviction.

Florida hasn’t allowed guns to be openly carried in public for decades, although the Legislature is considering bills this year that would grant that right.

Similar bills failed last year.

Supreme Court suspends judge considered by House impeachment panel

A North Florida judge used as an example by a House panel looking into impeachment of public officials has been suspended for six months by the Florida Supreme Court.

Decker

The court’s 46-page decision, released Thursday, also orders 3rd Circuit Judge Andrew Decker to get a public reprimand and pay investigative costs. A judicial misconduct hearing panel had recommended the same, but only a 90-day suspension.

Decker had been under investigation for three years for alleged attorney-ethical lapses before he was elected a judge in 2012.

State Rep. Larry Metz, chair of the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, has been critical of the court for sitting on the case for over a year without taking final action.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Peggy A. Quince, Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and C. Alan Lawson concurred in the per curiam ruling.

Justice Barbara Pariente also concurred but wrote a separate opinion, joined by R. Fred Lewis, saying “Decker’s ethical missteps as an attorney … are compounded by the false and otherwise unethical statements he made on the campaign trail.”

At the same time, she agreed that “despite his professional misconduct as an attorney, Judge Decker has ably served the citizens of the Third Judicial Circuit since assuming the bench.”

Decker had been charged with a number of ethical breaches as a civil litigation attorney, including not disclosing conflicts of interest to clients in one case and inappropriate communication with an opposing party in another matter.

During his campaign for judge, he took part in a televised debate in which he said he had never been accused of having a conflict of interest. “The statement was false because less than four months earlier, a formal complaint was filed with The Florida Bar by a former client, alleging conflict of interest,” the opinion said.

Moreover, “at a judicial forum sponsored by the Lafayette County Republican Executive Committee, then-attorney Decker stated to the audience that he is a registered Republican, that his former affiliation with the Democratic Party was an error, and that he is ‘pro-life.’ It was alleged that these statements violated the Code of Judicial Conduct,” which also applies to candidates.

Last month, Decker was used a case study by Metz’s panel as it looks into exercising the House’s constitutionally-granted impeachment power.

The Yalaha Republican admitted, however, that the House can only act on “misdemeanors that occur in office,” not on earlier behavior. Metz was not immediately available for comment.

State Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, raised concerns Decker had not been made aware he was going to be used as an example: “It does trouble me we don’t at least (him) know we’re going to be laying out all the bad things (he’s) done.”

“I’m just glad it’s over and I’m sure the judge is too,” said Tampa lawyer Scott Tozian, who representied Decker in the misconduct investigation.

Supreme Court won’t hear FPL’s Turkey Point nuke project appeal

The Florida Supreme Court has declined to hear Florida Power & Light Co.’s appeal of a lower court ruling blocking the company’s plan to build two new nuclear power reactors at Turkey Point.

The court issued an order declining to accept jurisdiction in the case.

The move leaves intact a ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal rejecting the nuclear plant addition.

The city of Miami, Miami-Dade County, and other municipalities in the region had challenged a vote by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to allow the project to move forward.

The 3rd DCA said Scott and the Cabinet, sitting as the state Siting Board, had failed to apply Miami’s land regulations and mistakenly thought it lacked authority to order the utility to bury transmission lines.

Judicial term limits, death penalty bills clear final House committee votes

Bills that would require unanimous jury votes to impose the death penalty, and ask voters whether to impose term limits on appellate judges, were headed to the House floor following their approval Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee.

The death penalty bill attracted a single “no” vote, and that was from Democrat Joe Geller, who said he would never again support any proposal that would “keep the horror of a death penalty.”

The judicial term limits bill passed on a vote of 11-8. The only Republicans to vote against it were Jay Fant and George Moraitis Jr.

The committee also approved HB 65, which would allow victims of terrorist acts to sue perpetrators and their enablers in state court; and HB 301, requiring the Florida Supreme Court to report each year to the the governor, attorney general, and legislative leaders the number of cases still pending 180 days after oral argument.

HB 527, the death penalty bill, answers qualms by the Florida Supreme Court about putting people to death absent unanimous jury recommendations. In October, the court struck down a law allowing executions upon 10-2 jury votes.

Only Monday, the court said executions could proceed in cases where that wasn’t a factor.

“We’ve had paralysis in our death penalty cases until yesterday,” said sponsor Chris Sprowls, who chairs the committee.

The Palm Harbor Republican said that, when he was a prosecutor, uncertainty regarding the penalty for murder was painful to victims’ families.

In sending the bill to the floor, “we would do just our small role for these families, in ensuring we have a death penalth statute that is constitutional, legal, and that these cases can move forward.”

The committee voted after death penalty opponents — including a man exonerated after serving on death row, and the mother of a murder victim — argued for abolition of capital punishment.

HJR 1, the term limits bill by Eustis Republican Jennifer Sullivan, would need approval by three-fifths of the House and Senate to appear on the ballot, where it would become a constitutional amendment upon approval by 60 percent of the voters.

It would limit judges of the district courts of appeal and justices of the Florida Supreme Court to 12 years in office.

Representatives of an array of legal groups — including the Florida Bar, the Florida Board of Trial Advocates and the Florida Justice Reform Institute — warned it would discourage bright lawyers from seeking the bench and interfere with judicial independence.

The latter argument struck a cord with Tallahassee Democrat Ramon Alexander.

“There was a time when people who look like me weren’t allowed to vote,” he said. “Because of the independent judiciary, I am afforded the opportunity to sit here today.”

Yalaha Republican Larry Metz said judges should be subject to term limits, the same as governors and legislators.

“With respect to the judiciary, one might argue, well, they’re not policymakers,” he said.

“But I would say that appellate judges in Florida — not all of them, but many of them — act as policymakers; they actually legislate from the bench.”

Supporters including Sullivan argued the bill would promote accountability — and noted that the proposal would merely place the question before the voters.

“At the end of the day, leave it to the voters of Florida decision,” she said.

Redistricting overhaul barely clears second Senate panel

The legislation (SB 352) was OK’d by the Senate Ethics and Election Committee, with all three Democrats on the panel voting no.

The bill is a response to court challenges over the state’s redrawn districts after the 2010 Census.

“The Florida Supreme Court issued eight separate apportionment opinions, the trial court issued additional opinions, and litigation spanned nearly 4 years in the state courts,” a staff analysis said.

“The litigation often proved confusing to candidates hoping to qualify and run for office because the candidates were uncertain where the district boundaries were located,” it added.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson of Elkton, will next be considered by the Rules Committee.

Florida prosecutors can seek death penalty despite questions

Florida prosecutors can seek the death penalty in ongoing cases despite a state Supreme Court ruling that found a new death penalty law unconstitutional.

The court ruled Monday that the death penalty can be applied as long as there is a unanimous jury recommendation.

It ruled last October that a new state law requiring at least a 10-2 jury recommendation is unconstitutional.

But Monday justices said other aspects of the law are constitutional and prosecutors can proceed in capital punishment cases.

Prosecutors had been in limbo wondering whether the death penalty could be applied. Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the court to clarify.

The court released an opinion last month saying the death penalty couldn’t be applied in pending cases, but then withdrew the opinion hours later.

Bar exam board seeking two lawyer members

The organization responsible for writing the state’s bar examination is looking for two good lawyers.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners has two openings for attorney-members, it said in a Monday news release.

Applicants have to be “practicing lawyers with scholarly attainments” and must have been a member of The Florida Bar for at least five years.

Sorry, judges and law professors are ineligible.

Members have to “attend approximately ten meetings a year in various Florida locations, be willing and able to devote the equivalent of 3-4 days’ work a month, or up to 350 or more hours per year on Board business,” the release added.

Interested? Click here to download the application or call (850) 561-5757 to get one.

Completed applications must be received by the Executive Director, The Florida Bar, 651 East Jefferson St., Tallahassee, Florida, 32399-2300 or submitted via e-mail to <specialapptapp@floridabar.org> no later than close of business on Monday, April 3.

A “screening committee” will recommend six nominees for the two vacancies at its May 26 meeting.

“The nominations will then be forwarded to the Supreme Court to fill two five-year terms commencing November 1, 2017, and expiring on October 31, 2022,” the release said. 

Florida’s bar exam is given twice yearly over two days, in July and February, at the Tampa Convention Center. The next exam is this Tuesday and Wednesday.

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