Florida Supreme Court Archives - Page 4 of 43 - Florida Politics

House Speaker Richard Corcoran making good on transparency, accountability promises

House Speaker Richard Corcoran began his two-year speakership in November by promising a “transformational leap” in government accountability and transparency.

“The Florida House will set the standard for others to emulate,” he declared.

Such pronouncements are often uttered by politicians, especially those who may aspire to higher office. But one week into Florida’s annual legislative session the hard-charging Republican reformer from Land O’Lakes has a lot to show for his audacious accountability talk.

While the final outcome is far from certain, under Corcoran’s leadership the House voted to kill Enterprise Florida, the state’s chief businesses recruitment organization, and restructure Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation, while cutting its funding from $76 million to $25 million annually.

Enterprise Florida’s $350 million Sanford Burnham deal that failed to create 300 jobs over 10 years, and Visit Florida’s $1 million payment to rapper Pitbull for a “Sexy Beaches” tourism promotion are symbols of Corcoran’s “corporate welfare” outrage.

The House passed the tough accountability reforms 87-28, and 80-35, respectively, despite intense pressure from Republican Gov. Rick Scott and economic development and tourism marketing beneficiaries across the state.

Lobbyists are also feeling the pressure. On Friday, the House passed the toughest lobbying ban in the country.

By a vote of 110-3, lawmakers agreed on a 6-year lobbying ban for legislators and statewide elected officials once they leave public office. The measure extends a current two-year “revolving door” restriction, and applies to all state agencies and the government bodies the elected officers formerly served.

Corcoran previously said extending the ban would eliminate the “looking to lobby” mentality that can manifest in an official’s final term. After Friday’s vote, the Speaker tweeted, “Proud that @myflhouse just passed the strongest lobby ban for fmr. legislators in the nation with a bipartisan vote of 110-3.”

All three items are central to Corcoran’s legislative agenda. Whether the state Senate will emulate his efforts remains to be seen.

Meantime, the Speaker’s transparency push continues in the lower chamber.

In a manner befitting Sunshine Week, an annual mid-March open government initiative, Corcoran is imposing additional restrictions on lobbyists with the aim of shedding light on their activities and reducing undue influence.

Before being allowed to lobby House members, lobbyists now are required to file electronic notices of appearance disclosing the specific issues they seek to influence. The disclosure is necessary to eliminate “the mystery of who is lobbying what issue,” according to a House statement.

Lobbyists also are prohibited from influencing House lawmakers via email, text message or other forms of electronic communication when the chamber is voting or when a member is in a committee meeting. It’s a practice that “if widely known to the public would engender justifiable outrage,” the statement says.

Additionally, House members are no longer allowed to travel on private jets owned by lobbyists, enter into business deals or financial relationships with lobbyists, or lobby local governments that they oversee.

Private contracts also must be disclosed if lobbyists are representing public entities or any related institution receiving taxpayer funding. “Taxpayer money being used to lobby the Legislature for more taxpayer money is a vicious cycle.”

Lawmakers and lobbyists would be subject to one or more of the following penalties for violations: public censure and reprimand, civil penalties up to $10,000 or restitution of any pecuniary benefits received in violation of the rules.

Rick Scott signs death penalty fix into law

Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation Monday requiring a unanimous jury recommendation before the death penalty can be imposed.

Lawmakers passed the bill out of the House and Senate last week, rushing the measure through the process in hopes of fixing the state’s death penalty law. The House voted 112-3 to approve the measure Friday, one day after the Senate voted unanimously to approve it.

The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 declared the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision. The ruling was based on a case where a judge issued a death sentence after a 7-5 jury recommendation.

In 2016, the Legislature overhauled the state law to let the death penalty be imposed by a 10-2 jury vote. But in October, the state Supreme Court voted 5-2 to strike down the new law and require unanimous jury decisions.

The change goes into effect immediately.

_The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

stacks of files and paperwork

Supreme Court case reporting bill passed by House

A bill requiring the state Supreme Court to produce a yearly report on how many cases it’s finishing with opinions got the thumbs up from the Florida House on Friday.

The legislation (HB 301), which has an identical companion in the Senate, was approved 78-37.

The bill, by 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.”

The Republican-controlled House has long been antagonized by Supreme Court rulings its leaders have characterized as “judicial overreach.”

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

After the House session, White—an attorney—told reporters he didn’t expect the justices to divulge any private deliberations on cases to explain any delays.

“They can simply say they don’t have a majority on a case, or they’re still deliberating,” he said. “They could also say other factors, such as complexity (of a case). We’re leaving it to their discretion, to a degree.”

When asked if he thought “judges were lazy,” White said he didn’t, but added that “everyone needs deadlines.”

Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters has declined comment on the bill, but in January said the court had 785 pending cases.

“The court disposed of 2,432 cases in calendar year 2016,” he added, adding that number “is subject to correction as we routinely audit the final results.”

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.

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