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House panel approves three measures tamping down on the judiciary

A House committee voted Thursday to approve three proposals to tie the hands of Florida’s judiciary, including a proposed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on judges of courts of appeal and Supreme Court.

Altogether, the measures would limit appellate judges to two six-year terms; remove a judicial education program from the Supreme Court’s supervision; and require the high court to report its caseload clearance rate to the governor and House and Senate leaders.

Legislative leaders have chafed at court rulings striking down their priorities in recent years, but supporters in the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee have insisted this had nothing to do with that.

Committee member Sean Shaw — a Tampa Democrat whose father, Leander Shaw, served for many years on the appellate bench, including the Florida Supreme Court — wasn’t persuaded.

“We seem to forget that the judiciary is a co-equal branch of our government,” he said following the committee’s meeting. “The judiciary is just as important as the branch that I serve in. They’re sure not being treated like it.”

HJR 1 would limit judges of the district courts of appeal and the Supreme Court to 12 years in all. They’d have to sit out a year after being termed out to become eligible to rejoin the bench. The measure passed, 8-7.

Mount Dora Republican Jennifer Mae Sullivan sponsored the bill. She noted that, since Florida adopted the merit-retention system for judges during the 1970s, not one has been defeated in a retention election.

“Any accountability system that doesn’t hold people accountable is not truly an accountability system,” she said.

The measure drew opposition from groups including the Institute for Legal Reform, the Florida Board of Trial Advocacy Education Fund, the Florida Judicial Reform Institute, and various sections of the Florida Bar.

The thrust of the opponents’ argument was the danger to judicial independence; that the existing system works; and that change would discourage the brightest young legal minds from seeking the bench, for fear of having to restart a law practice after 12 years away.

At the same time, Jeff Kottcamp, of the advocacy fund, argued the state would be foolish to discard experienced judges.

“When it comes to dispensing justice — to matters of life and liberty — there is no substitute for experience,” he said.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, the bill needs the support of three-fifths of the membership of the House and Senate plus 60 percent of the voters.

HB 301 would require the state’s chief justice to deliver its annual report on the number of cases undecided after more than 180 days to the governor, House speaker, and Senate president.

The reports would be due each Oct. 15. At present, the chief justice receives the report.

The bill passed, 13-3.

PCB for HB 175 would transfer oversight of Florida’s training programs for judges from the high court to Florida Court Education Council, which now advises the court on judicial education. Its staff would be cut from 15 employees to three.

The measure passed, 11-5.

military bar

Lawyers married to military could bypass bar exam in Florida

The Florida Bar wants lawyer-spouses of military members stationed in Florida to be able to practice law here without having to take the state bar exam.

The Bar, which regulates the state’s 100,000-plus licensed attorneys, filed its request with the Florida Supreme Court last week. The change would require court approval.

Twenty-three other states, including Texas and New York, “have adopted a military spouse rule,” the Bar’s petition says. It “received no comments in opposition.”

“Due to the unique mobility requirements of military families, lawyers licensed in a jurisdiction other than Florida often have to relocate to Florida with their spouse who is in the military,” the petition explains. “Currently, that lawyer is unable to engage in the practice of law in Florida” without passing the state bar exam.

There were “over 900 military spouse attorneys worldwide as of November 2013,” according to the Military Spouse JD Network.

“Moving to Florida and taking the Florida Bar Examination is often impractical because of the timing of the deployment to Florida and the dates the bar examination is given,” in February and July, and only in Tampa, the Bar’s petition adds.

“The timing issues could result in the military spouse being reassigned before the lawyer spouse is admitted … For these reasons, some lawyer spouses choose to remain in the jurisdiction where they are licensed, splitting families apart while the military spouse is stationed in Florida.”

The new rule “would only apply to lawyers who are spouses of active military personnel stationed in Florida,” and they would be considered Florida lawyers only “during the time their military spouse is stationed in Florida.”

“Although the number of military spouse attorneys is relatively small, the positive impact of this proposed rule on their families will be enormous,” said a report by the Military Spouse JD Network to the Bar.

Its passage “will send a clear message that the Florida legal community encourages the participation of the talented diverse group of military spouse attorneys.”

Jorge Labarga answers critics about James E.C. Perry’s ‘senior’ service

Florida’s chief justice Friday publicly defended his decision to allow Justice James E.C. Perry to continue working on cases after his retirement.

On Dec. 1, Jorge Labarga assigned Perry “senior” status for a period after his mandatory Dec. 30 retirement.

News since surfaced that the Florida House of Representatives, led by Republican Speaker Richard Corcoran, was preparing a legal challenge to Perry’s continued work saying, among other things, Perry was an unconstitutional “eighth” justice on the seven-member court.

“It’s in the constitution,” Labarga told reporters, speaking in advance of a meeting of the state’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice in Tallahassee. “The constitution permits the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court to appoint senior justice and senior judges.”

The state’s governing document says the chief justice “shall have the power to assign justices or judges, including consenting retired justices or judges, to temporary duty in any court for which the judge is qualified.”

“When I signed the original order, way back in December,” Labarga said, “the names (of nominees to replace Perry) had just been sent to the governor, and I had no way of knowing how long the governor was going to take to make the appointment within the period in which he’s allowed to make it.”

Gov. Rick Scott Dec. 16 announced then-5th District Court of Appeal Chief Judge C. Alan Lawson, a conservative jurist, to replace Perry, who often voted with the court’s liberal contingent.

“Once the governor appointed Justice Lawson, then I amended the order,” Labarga said. That amended order, relieving Perry of his extended service as of Jan. 31, was signed Jan. 11 and released to the media Monday.

Labarga said the court’s practice, “as long as I can remember,” has been to grant retired justices senior status to finish work they started; that is, to work on opinions in cases in which they participated in oral argument.

According to court records, the last justice afforded such status was Charles T. Wells, the man Perry replaced on the court in 2009. Before that, Labarga said then-Justice Raoul Cantero, a conservative, also had gone on senior status. Cantero left the court for private practice in 2008.

Critics privately have referred to a section of state law providing that “upon the resignation, death or impeachment of any judge, all matters pending before that judge shall be heard and determined by the judge’s successor.” That law does not use the word “justice,” others say.

“Appellate work is not like trial work,” Labarga said. “If I leave the bench today and a new judge comes in, that judge can’t just start that morning. The records are huge. It takes time to read” all the material.

“This way, when you’re almost out of the woods, almost done with an opinion, you can get it done.”

The chief justice also noted Perry was not paid as a senior justice, that he worked as a “volunteer:” “He served a long and distinguished career and was ready to move on with his life.”

Labarga also said, when he amended his order to end Perry’s senior status, he did not know the House was preparing to challenge Perry’s still being at the court.

“Absolutely not. I learned about that in a newspaper article,” Labarga said. Court spokesman Craig Waters “came to me and said, ‘They’re making this allegation.’ My reaction was, ‘What?’ “

Labarga later declined comment on bills now filed in the Legislature to place term limits on appellate judges and allow legislative overrides on court decisions.

Moreover, another reporter pointed out the governor’s proposed budget does not fund the state court system’s request for new judges or improved technology.

When asked if he felt “like the judiciary has a bull’s-eye on its back,” Labarga said, “We’re prepared to answer any questions they have about how we use the taxpayers’ money … But I’m not going to comment on motivations.”

 

Supreme Court: Attorneys can collect fees for claim bill work

The Legislature can’t limit the amount of attorney fees to be paid out of money it OKs for a claim bill, a narrowly divided Florida Supreme Court decided.

The 4-3 opinion was one of nine in an unusual out-of-calendar release from the court this Tuesday. The Supreme Court normally releases opinions 11 a.m. on Thursdays.

Senior Justice James E.C. Perry and Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy A. Quince were in the majority. Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga dissented.

Perry’s “senior” status after his December retirement was considered improper by conservative critics of the court. Perry was replaced last month by former state appellate Judge C. Alan Lawson, a conservative.

The Florida House of Representatives was even prepared to legally challenge Perry’s continued work on the court until he finally withdrew into full retirement this week.

In the claim bill opinion, the majority sided with the Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley law firm, which represented Aaron Edwards, a brain-damaged man who received a $15 million claim bill from the Legislature.

Edwards was born brain-damaged in 1997 because of medical malpractice at Lee Memorial Health System, according to briefs in the case.

Florida law limits local governments and other public bodies to paying no more than $200,000 per person in damages. To get more, lawmakers must pass a claim bill, also known as a relief act, for extra money.

The “contingency fee contract” between the firm and Edwards’ mother called for attorney fees of 25 percent.

The 2012 claim bill, however, says the “total amount paid for attorney’s fees, lobbying fees, costs, and other similar expenses relating to the claim may not exceed $100,000.”

The majority said lawmakers may approve or deny a claim bill but they can’t “impair an pre-existing contract” between an attorney and a client.

On the other hand, Polston noted in dissent that the firm’s fee agreement said, in part, that “Federal and Florida Law may limit the amount of attorney fees charged by [Searcy Denney], and in that event, I understand that the fees owed to [Searcy Denney] shall be the amount provided by law.”

“Because the fee agreement explicitly anticipates and agrees to an award of fees as limited by Florida law and in the amount provided by law, there is no impairment of contract,” Polston said.

Christian D. Searcy, the firm’s president, told the court during oral argument in June he took the case because no other firm wanted it and he believed Edwards needed to be compensated.

In emotional remarks to the court, he called the fee cap a “confiscatory limitation,” adding that “no seriously injured child will ever be able to get an attorney … or anybody with a serious claim.”

Searcy was not immediately available at his office Tuesday.

 

James E.C. Perry’s “senior service” on Supreme Court to end

Florida Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry‘s last day as a “senior” justice will be Tuesday, according to a court order released Monday.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga signed the latest order Jan. 11, modifying his previous order of Dec. 1.

Spokesman Craig Waters previously explained that the court’s “longstanding practice for many decades has been that retiring justices remain in senior status to complete their unfinished work after retirement.”

Perry

Perry, who joined the court in 2009, stepped down Dec. 30, having reached the mandatory retirement age. His name appeared on several opinions, including death penalty matters, released by the court since then.

“However, it is axiomatic that continued service is not without limit,” Labarga wrote.

“…At the time that the Dec. 1 order was entered, it was not known when a new justice would be appointed to replace him,” he wrote. “That issue now has been resolved.”

Gov. Rick Scott on Dec. 16 appointed conservative appellate judge C. Alan Lawson to replace Perry. Lawson had been chief judge of the state’s 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach.

Perry has since “expressed his desire that his senior service not be protracted for a lengthy period of time,” Labarga said.

The senior status recently piqued the ire of conservative blogger Ed Whelan, who opined on National Review Online that Perry’s continuing to work on pending cases was wrongly “displac(ing)” Lawson.

 

House subcommittee looks into state courts’ caseload backlogs

The percentage of the Florida Supreme Court’s caseload still pending after 180 days doubled after the U.S. Supreme Court upended the state’s death penalty system last year, a court representative told a House panel looking into court delays on Thursday.

In Hurst v. Florida, the justices in Washington invalidated Florida’s death penalty because the law gave too much discretion to judges instead of juries in handing down death sentences. Death row inmates filed appeals en masse. The court in Tallahassee is still weighing a response.

“That has completely held up the death penalty cases in Florida,” said John Tomasino, clerk of the Florida Supreme Court.

The court has set a standard for deciding cases within 180 days. The House Civil Justice and Claims Subcommittee held hearings into how quickly  the high court and other appellate and trial courts are clearing their caseloads.

Since 2006, the Florida Supreme Court has left between 1 percent and 4 percent of its cases lingering past that deadline. In 2015, the percentage was 3 percent. It swelled to 6 percent in 2016.

Cord Byrd, a Republican attorney from Neptune Beach, wanted to know why the Supreme Court takes so long sometimes to ruling on appeals. The court took more than two years to decide Castellanos v. Next Door Co., last year’s bombshell workers’ compensation ruling.

“Those are the exception, not the rule,” Tomasini said. “It does happen from time to time. All I can do is to point to factors that can contribute to those cases when that type delay does happen. One I definitely can share is the court trying to decide it properly, trying to decide it together.”

Officials representing trial courts and district courts of appeal said that what data exist about case clearance are sometime wrong. Chief trial judge Mark Mahon of Jacksonville referred to a report that his judges let 2,789 jury cases linger for more than 18 months. In reality, he said, none has lingered for more than 180 days.

He blamed delays on self-represented litigants who don’t understand the system; difficulties in securing language interpreters, parties’ requests for continuances, and an increasingly complicated case load.

Plus difficulties integrating new electronic filing systems, which are not always compatible with each other.

Death cases also can tie up the courts.

“It’s something that technology may not be the solution to. It’s just inherent in the system,” Mahon said. “Death is different, and it’s going to take a higher level of scrutiny. You just can’t afford to make a mistake.”

Lack of expertise in court clerks’ office can also inflate the statistics, he said. For example, he once found a first-degree murder case counted as a death penalty case when prosecutors weren’t seeking that sanction.

“You have to understand what you’re looking at. I think someone looked at it and said, ‘First-degree murder — that’s a death penalty case,’ ” Mahon said.

“I have not witnessed a systemic procedural delay issue at the trial court level,” said Rep. Shawn Harrison, a commercial litigator from Tampa.

“When the foreclosure crisis hit several years ago, that did have an impact. We noticed a delay there,” he said. “But most of the things I have seen are based on the geography of where the cases are brought; cases in South Florida tend to move slower than cases in different parts of the states. That’s just because things work that way there.”

George Moraitis Jr., a Republican from Fort Lauderdale, complained that, as a probate attorney, it can take months to see a case docketed.

“What tangible benefits are we seeing from this e-filing system?” he asked. “As a practitioner, it’s entirely frustrating.”

Judge Robert Roundtree of Alachua County, which has developed its own court management system, guessed there might be delays in Moraitis’ electronic filings being approved and sent to a judge.

“That’s what the clerks are struggling with, with their lack of resources, is having the tools to make sure they can maintain the file. The court is struggling with the overlay, the case management system, so we can see the file.”

This is the fourth year the trial courts have asked the Legislature for updated technology. “We saw the train wreck coming as we transfer from analog to digital,” Roundtree said.

“We’ve got the front end done with the electronic filing,” he said. “You bought all the bells and whistles on the data plan, and some us have a flip phone trying to access it.”

Committee chairwoman Heather Fitzenhagen, a Republican attorney from Fort Myers, asked whether administrators were moving toward a common system, accessible statewide.

Roundtree said the courts have established a common standard for these system and is working toward allowing different courts to communicate. “We are working to that level,” he said.

“Ultimately, it will be some form of a homegrown, internally grown system,” he said. “We cannot always be at the mercy of a third-party vendor who says now we have to upgrade to version 2.0 — now we won’t support the last system.”

Whether the courts are resolving delays, “it’s a problem for those people whose cases are delayed. We want to find out why that’s happening and if we can correct it,” Byrd said following the hearing.

Of the steps toward a coordinated database for trial judges and court clerks, he said: “It would seem like that would go a long way in solving some of these problems.”

Is there money for that?

“That’s a great question,” Byrd said. “Not one that I have an answer to.”

 

Bill would force case reporting requirements on Supreme Court

A bill filed Thursday in the Florida House would force the state Supreme Court to produce a yearly report on how many cases it’s finishing with opinions.

It seems to go against the court’s official Latin motto, “Sat Cito Si Recte,” translated as “Soon enough if done correctly,” or even “Justice takes time.”

“The phrase indicates the importance of taking the time necessary to achieve true justice,” the court’s website says. Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters declined comment on the bill.

The legislation (HB 301), filed by new Republican state Rep. Frank White of Pensacola, would require the court to tally in detail “each case on the court’s docket … for which a decision or disposition has not been rendered within 180 days.” 

It then requires a “detailed explanation of the court’s failure to render a decision or disposition” in pending cases older than six months.

The bill also instructs the court to tally cases it decided in the previous year but took longer than six months.

The report “shall be submitted in an electronic spreadsheet format capable of being sorted” and sent to “the Governor, the Attorney General, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.”

In a phone interview Friday, White – an attorney – said he started hearing from constituents soon after his election about “painfully long wait times for appellate opinions.”

“I thought, let’s just simply ask the court, starting with the Supreme Court, for a modest report,” he said. “A little sunshine and some data will all help us do a better job.”

To those who bring up the court’s motto, he counters with another expression: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Waters did say the court currently has 785 pending cases. “By comparison, the court disposed of 2,432 cases in calendar year 2016,” he said, adding that number “is subject to correction as we routinely audit the final results.”

Coincidentally, the bill is the latest legislation from a Republican-controlled House that’s long been antagonized by rulings its leaders have characterized as “judicial overreach.”

In October, for example, House Speaker Richard Corcoran lambasted a decision invalidating part of the state’s death penalty.

The ruling, requiring a unanimous jury recommendation for a death sentence, “is just the latest example of the Florida Supreme Court’s ongoing effort to subvert the will of the people as expressed by their elected representatives,” Corcoran said.

The House also is considering a measure for the 2017 Legislative Session that would impose term limits on judges. At its last hearing, the panel reviewing the legislation also discussed how quickly courts are clearing their caseloads.

Earlier this month, Heather Fitzenhagen – chairwoman of the Civil Justice and Claims Subcommittee – rejected a suggestion that House Republicans want to publish the court for rulings striking down the GOP’s priorities. White also sits on that committee. 

“Absolutely not,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is … (make) sure that all of our branches of government are functioning at the best possible efficiency, and that we’re getting things done in the best manner possible. That justice is served in a timely manner.”

Officials, others respond to school vouchers case

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision not to take up a contentious school vouchers lawsuit continued to garner reaction throughout Wednesday.

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump‘s nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, tweeted, “Congrats to the Florida families who have a clear path toward more opportunity due to #SchoolChoice w/ today’s FL Supreme Court decision!”

Florida House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa, in a statement, called the move “a blow to our state’s Constitutional promise of  ‘a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.’ ”

“We can all agree that the zip code of a child’s birth should not be a determining factor in their access to a high quality public education,” she said. “However, for almost 20 years now, since the passage of Gov. Jeb Bush’s original unconstitutional voucher system, Florida has diverted billions of taxpayer dollars away from our public schools in a misguided attempt at outsourcing our children’s education to for-profit corporations and fly-by-night profiteers.

“Instead, these resources should have been spent improving our neighborhood schools, focusing on options that we know have a proven success rate and a genuine benefit to the public they are meant to serve, such as the community schools model,” she added. “Unfortunately, some continue to view our children as a commodity from which every ounce of profit should be squeezed.

“Even with today’s setback, House Democrats will continue to fight on behalf of the thousands of parents and students who have been failed by legislative leaders more intent on serving an ideology of boundless privatization rather than a commitment to the educational well-being of our children.”

Bush, the president and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), the school reform group he founded, said the decision is “a powerful reminder to entrenched special interests that when policymakers work hand-in-hand with Florida’s families, students win.”

“It is my hope that opponents of Florida’s efforts to help our most vulnerable students will stop impeding successful reforms and join us in ensuring all students have access to excellent educational options,” he said.

Cruz’s counterpart, Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran, called the court’s order “a great victory for school children, parents, and classroom teachers who want the best for their students.”

“I thank the many organizations, pastors, parents, and children who advocated for fairness and justice in our education system and wish them all a great school year,” he said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was “pleased that the lower court’s decision will stand, and that this important program will continue to provide educational opportunities for children of families that have limited financial resources.

“Today is a great victory for our children,” she said in a statement.

Americans for Prosperity-Florida (AFP-FL), the state’s pro-free market organization, called Wednesday “a day to celebrate.”

“Our childrens’ future looks brighter than ever,” AFP-FL state director Chris Hudson said in an email. “Last year, the legislature enacted several common sense reforms to improve access to a quality education. Today’s ruling furthers the initiative to ensure that parents can make the best decisions for their children.”

Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic M. Calabro said the program “provide(s) lower income families, most of whom are minorities, the opportunities to receive a high quality education and are funded through donations from businesses across the state.”

“Educating our children, particularly those who do not have the same opportunities as others, is crucial in ensuring that they can go on to college, earn a degree and begin a career that offers them prosperity and success,” Calabro said in a statement. “…With the lawsuit officially over, the state does not have to continue to spend taxpayer dollars on what could have been an expensive battle at the Supreme Court.”

Cesar Grajales, Florida Coalitions Director of The LIBRE Initiative, a project of Americans for Prosperity focused on the Hispanic community, said the court “was right to defend the needs of Florida students by dismissing the attacks from unions.”

“School choice is a powerful tool to ensure that our community has the best access to education possible,” Grajales said. “…I am looking forward to working with the Florida legislature to continue expanding reforms that ensure parents and students can achieve their educational goals.”

classroom school vouchers

Teachers’ union: “Who can challenge the Legislature on voucher program?”

The Florida Education Association (FEA) vented its “frustration” Wednesday after the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up a suit challenging the constitutionality of what’s been called “the nation’s largest private school choice program.”

The court decided not to hear a challenge to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, created in 2001, though – as one former judge noted – its order “doesn’t say (it) lacks jurisdiction.” (Main story here.)

That had Joanne McCall, the statewide teachers’ union’s president and the lead plaintiff in the case, asking, Who can pursue a case? A trial court and the 1st District Court of Appeal had previously ruled the matter could not go forward.

“This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, doesn’t answer that question,” she said in a statement. “We still believe that the tax credit vouchers are unconstitutional, but we haven’t had the opportunity to argue our case in court.”

Though the Supreme Court put an end to this case, first filed in 2014, the challenge now for voucher opponents is to find one or more plaintiffs who do have the legal standing to successfully press a complaint.

At issue was money going toward religious schools, and whether “taxpayers,” like McCall, could challenge “indirect state subsidies” paying for parochial school tuitions.

“We’re baffled that the courts would deny taxpayers the right to question state expenditures,” McCall added. “This decision has ramifications beyond this challenge to a voucher program.”

It “relies on private, voluntary donations—not public dollars,” the state’s brief on the jurisdictional question said. “And the program provides tax credits to donors—not schools or students.”

“At bottom, petitioners’ assertion of taxpayer standing is predicated on the assumption that this case involves the unlawful ‘use of public funds,’ ” the state’s brief said. “As the trial court and the (appellate court) correctly concluded, that position is flatly at odds with the how the Scholarship Program actually operates, and misconstrues the plain language of Florida’s Constitution.”

In other words, “the Legislature’s carefully crafted policy choice does not suffice to establish a concrete, particularized injury” to those that sued, including the FEA, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP’s Florida State Conference.

On the other hand, the FEA’s brief said the vouchers scheme “diverts funds from the public (treasury) to subsidize the costs for certain Florida children to attend private schools, the overwhelming majority of which are sectarian.”

“(N)othing in the law prohibits these schools from engaging in religious discrimination or mandating that their students participate in religious instruction and religious exercise,” according to the brief.

It said the high court should “accept jurisdiction … because the decision not only undermines the law of taxpayer standing, but it effectively holds the Scholarship Program – and any other government program similarly funded by a targeted tax credit rather than direct appropriations – to be immune from challenge.”

Simone Marstiller, a retired judge of the 1st District and now a lawyer in private practice, said appellate Judge Lori S. Rowe‘s decision “beautifully lays out exactly why” the high court turned the case down.

“Bottom line: The union and others simply cannot show any ‘injury’ from the Legislature’s use of tax credits to fund the scholarship program,” said Marstiller, who also held many positions under Gov. Jeb Bush, including secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

“This is not a situation in which tax revenues are being diverted away from the public school system in favor of private schools, including religious schools,” she said. “So, not only is there no exercise of the Legislature’s spending power at issue, no constitutional provisions are implicated.”

The FEA did not immediately say what further legal plans it had regarding the vouchers program.

Supreme Court throws out school vouchers case

The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday said it will not take up an appeal on a high-profile school vouchers case.

The decision comes as a major setback to vouchers opponents, including the Florida Education Association (FEA), the statewide teachers’ union, but was applauded by school choice advocates. (Separate story on the FEA’s reaction here.)

The court denied a request to review the case, but did not comment on its merits. “No motion for rehearing will be entertained by the Court,” its 2-paragraph order said.

“Who is allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit vouchers?” FEA President Joanne McCall said in a statement. “This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, don’t answer that question.” McCall is the lead plaintiff in the case.

Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy A. Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston concurred in the decision. Justice R. Fred Lewis dissented, saying he would have granted oral argument.

The nonprofit organization that administers legal battle over the nation’s largest private school choice program is over,” in a blog post.

Doug Tuthill, president of the nonprofit Step Up For Students organizationhe court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children.”

His organization and other supporters had put on a pro-vouchers rally last year featuring Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The FEA held its own “Enough is Enough!” rally days before.

“We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck,” Tuthill added in a statement.

The program “provides for state tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship funding organizations (SFOs). The SFOs then award scholarships to eligible children of low-income families,” its website says.

The tax credit cap for the current year is $559 million, according to the state. That cap will increase to $698,8 million for the 2017-2018 state fiscal year.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran also issued a statement, calling the move “a great victory for school children, parents, and classroom teachers who want the best for their students.” The program is a favorite of legislative Republicans.

“I thank the many organizations, pastors, parents, and children who advocated for fairness and justice in our education system and wish them all a great school year,” said Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican.

The Supreme Court’s inaction leaves in place a 1st District Court of Appeal decision, siding with a lower court’s decision to throw out the lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association and others.

They had argued that the state’s method of funding private-school educations for more than 90,000 schoolchildren this year is unconstitutional.

The appeals court said the plaintiffs haven’t been harmed by the program, and denied that it violates state law. The vouchers are funded by corporations, which in turn receive tax credits on money they owe to the state.

Florida has several voucher programs in place; the one being challenged extends vouchers to low-income families, most of them black or Hispanic, who send their children to religious schools.

It began in 2001 under Gov. Jeb Bush, and legislators later approved expanding it to middle-income families.

The teacher union argued that it violates the state’s constitution by creating a parallel education system and directing tax money to religious institutions.

But Judge Lori Rowe, who wrote the 1st DCA opinion, said the plaintiffs lack legal standing to sue because they had not shown that other school funding had declined because of the program, or provided other proof of “concrete harm.”

Rowe added that the tax credit scholarship program doesn’t violate a constitutional ban on state aid to religious institutions because it involves the taxing, and not the spending power, of the Florida Legislature.

The Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM) weighed in later Wednesday morning, saying “Florida is on the right side of history.”

“I am proud to live in a state where educational choices for families are embraced and upheld,” said Shawn Frost, FCSBM president. “… “Let’s return Florida’s focus to where it belongs: on our students.

“We must commit to meeting each child’s unique needs, and improving academic outcomes for all,” Frost said. “When choices work for a child, we should celebrate that success not be threatened by it.”

Background for this post from The Associated Press, reprinted with permission. 

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