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Joe Henderson: Separation of powers there to keep legislators from running amok

Politicians have long been outraged – OUTRAGED, I tell you – about so-called “activist judges” who make them follow that pesky thing known as the law.

I guess it’s logical, therefore, for frustrated lawmakers to try and beat judges at their own game.

FloridaPolitics.com reported that State Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Republican from Venice, filed two bills to address this issue. If passed, voters would be asked to approve a constitutional amendment to basically allow the state to thumb its collective nose if a judge just says no.

If enacted, it would allow the Legislature to over-ride rulings by a two-thirds vote within five years of the ruling.

Interesting gambit.

The bills by Gonzalez take aim at both state and federal judges who, in the words of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, are the best example “of people putting power above principle …”

“We need judges who respect the Constitution and the separation of powers; who will reject the temptation to turn themselves into some unelected, super-legislature,” Corcoran said during a speech at his swearing-in ceremony.

“The problem with holding the same office for, in essence, life, is you start to think that the office is far, far, far less important than the person in it — which is why we need 12-year term limits on judges, so we can have a healthy judicial branch.”

Well, hold that thought for a moment, Mr. Speaker.

The separation of powers Corcoran embraces was never designed to be a judicial rubber stamp for lawmakers. It’s in there so judges can keep lawmakers from running amok – kind of the way Florida has done with its gerrymandered congressional boundaries and state House and Senate districts.

That was done against the will of voters, by the way. They approved separate constitutional amendments in 2010 that ordered districts “may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.”

And then, Republicans drew new districts that favored, well, Republicans. There was lawsuit by the League of Women Voters, which led to a ruling by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis that the boundaries of two districts broke the law.

To me, that is the textbook example of the separation of powers.

The same was true when the state Supreme Court ruled Florida’s death penalty law was unconstitutional. Note, the court didn’t say capital punishment itself was unconstitutional – only that the law saying only 10 of 12 jurors had to vote for death didn’t meet the legal standard.

That may be annoying to prosecutors and lawmakers who like to brag they’re tough on crime, but forcing them to work harder before sentencing a murderer to death is not unconstitutional.

Yes, judges sometimes make wacky rulings. Legislators also sometimes propose wacky bills that can become law.

When that happens, the only recourse is in the courts. Crying foul about “activist judges” who don’t see it their way is a weak argument from lawmakers who probably were trying to pull a fast one.

Even if these bills pass through the Legislature and makes their way to the governor’s desk for his signature though, opponents shouldn’t worry too much. They can probably get them overturned by appealing to one of those activist judges.

Legislation would allow lawmakers to override judges’ rulings

Lawmakers could override court decisions they don’t like under bills filed Tuesday.

State Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Venice Republican, filed two pieces of legislation, one aimed at state judges and another at federal judges who interpret state laws.

The first measure (HJR 121) would allow the Legislature to review judicial rulings that declare legislative acts void. If approved in the 2017 Legislative Session, it would allow lawmakers to put the issue on the ballot and amend the state Constitution.

That means that if “the Supreme Court, (any) district court of appeal, circuit court, or county court” overturns a law, the Legislature could salvage it with a two-thirds vote within five years of the ruling.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has made judicial reform a top priority during the next two years.

He has called for the state to impose a term limit for judges; in a November speech on the House floor, Corcoran said the state needs “judges who respect the Constitution and separation of powers; who will reject the temptation to turn themselves into some unelected, super-legislature.”

Gonzalez, an orthopedic surgeon by trade, also is taking aim at the feds, filing what’s known as a House memorial (HM 125).

“It is my concerted view that such provisions, if enacted by the people would curtail the tendency of activist judges to manipulate the law to suit their political views and agendas,” said Gonzalez in a statement on his website explaining his decision to file the measures. “Equally as importantly, this would force the people to engage the legislature in enacting rectifications to current laws that they see as objectionable or flawed, restoring the natural relationship between the people and their legislative bodies. This would also force the electorate to more carefully look at their candidates and their actions during times of reelection.”

It urges Congress to propose a constitutional amendment to “deem a law that has been declared void by certain federal courts active and operational.” Such measures, if passed, are non-binding.

It says the judicial branch has taken “an increasingly activist role aimed at molding legislation according to the political beliefs of its members.”

The U.S. Supreme Court “currently possesses ultimate and unchecked authority on matters of the constitutionality of the United States’ laws such that its opinion on such matters has the same effect as amending the United States Constitution,” the measure says.

“Thomas Jefferson foresaw the dangers of ‘allowing judges to be the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions,’ calling this ‘a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of oligarchy,’ ” it continues.

“And … the presence of such unchecked and plenary authority on determining the constitutionality validity of a law of the United States must be dismantled for the sake of our republic and for the continued empowerment of its people.”

__Tallahassee-based reporter Jim Rosica contributed to this report.

 

After Asay decision, anti-death penalty advocates call for commutations

The state’s leading death penalty opposition group is calling for more than 200 Florida death row inmates to have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment.

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP) says a Florida Supreme Court decision on convicted killer Mark Asay out Thursday means that many are “entitled to be resentenced.”

The court determined that this year’s U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Hurst v. Florida, requiring Florida juries—not judges—”to (determine) the facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death” does not apply retroactively to Asay and many others.

But the opinion can be retroactive for certain death-sentenced inmates whose “cases were not final” when another related U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Ring v. Arizona, came out in 2002.

That’s when the court first said juries alone must decide on “aggravating factors” for the death penalty. As of Friday, there were 384 convicts facing capital punishment in Florida.

Resentencing efforts could cost Florida taxpayers more than $100 million, said Mark Elliott, FADP’s executive director, in a statement.

“Florida taxpayers could spend more than $500,000 for each complex death sentencing phase that may or may not result in a sentence of death,” he said.

“Commuting these death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole would save many millions of critically needed criminal justice dollars,” Elliott added. “These funds could be reallocated to hire and train more law enforcement officers and better protect those who protect us.

“Now is the time to be both tough on crime and smart with taxpayer dollars.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott said the governor’s lawyers would review the ruling but did not immediately indicate when executions will resume.

The last person put to death in Florida was Oscar Ray Bolin Jr. in January. Scott holds the record for presiding over the most executions as Florida governor – 23 – since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Department of Corrections.

In Mark Asay case, court says death penalty ruling isn’t retroactive

Mark Asay will remain on the state’s death row, the Florida Supreme Court decided Thursday, likely to become the “first white person executed for the murder of a black person in this state.”

Asay, Mark
Asay

Its 80-page opinion also determined that this year’s U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Hurst v. Florida, requiring Florida juries—not judges—”to (determine) the facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death” does not apply retroactively to Asay and many others.

However, the opinion can be retroactive for certain death-sentenced inmates whose “cases were not final” when another related U.S. Supreme Court ruling came out in 2002.

In Ring v. Arizona, the court first said juries alone must decide on “aggravating factors” for the death penalty. As of Thursday, there were 384 convicts facing capital punishment in Florida.

But Thursday’s decision further suggested a court that continues to be fractured over the state’s death penalty. Most recently, Florida’s high court this October also said death sentences require a jury’s unanimous vote.

The controlling opinion in Asay’s case was a plurality of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Peggy A. Quince and Ricky Polston. The latter two often are polar opposites in opinions, with Quince leaning left and Polston a reliable conservative vote.

But Labarga and Polston also weighed in with separate concurring opinions, as did Justices R. Fred Lewis and Charles Canady, who agreed with the result only.

Justice Barbara Pariente wrote a mixed-bag opinion, concurring in part with the opinion but also dissenting, and Justice James E.C. Perry, who retires at the end of the month, dissented with a stunning admission.

“The majority’s decision today leads me to declare that I no longer believe that there is a method of which the state can avail itself to impose the death penalty in a constitutional manner,” he wrote, echoing Justice Harry Blackmun that he “no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”

“I would find that Hurst v. Florida applies retroactively, period,” Perry wrote.

Asay, a white supremacist sentenced to death for gunning down two people in Jacksonville in 1987, had asked the court to review his case. He was on parole at the time of the shootings.

Asay, his brother, and another man were in downtown Jacksonville looking for prostitutes when a confrontation with Robert Lee Booker, who was black, turned deadly. Asay later that night shot and killed a transgender prostitute, born Robert McDowell, “a black man dressed as a woman” whom Asay had hired for sex.

“As to both murders, the trial court found Asay’s age of 23 at the time of the murders to be the only mitigation for his offenses,” the opinion said.

Asay, now 52, was sentenced in November 1988 and Gov. Rick Scott signed his death warrant this January. The court lifted a stay of execution in Asay’s case entered on March 2.

His latest claims include questioning firearms evidence used at trial and not having a lawyer when Scott signed his death warrant “and for the previous 10 years.”

Asay also argued he should be re-sentenced because of the Hurst decision, requiring juries to determine the factors that support a death sentence. And he said prosecutors had suppressed new evidence in his favor.

The plurality opinion dismissed each of his arguments, including saying Hurst can’t be applied retroactively, in part because “this Court, the State of Florida in prosecuting these crimes, and the families of the victims had extensively relied on the (then-)constitutionality of Florida’s death penalty scheme.”

Moreover, “there are a substantial number of death sentences the finality of which would be upended, nearly half of those defendants committed their crimes and had their sentences upheld decades ago,” it said.

Then, in a classic example of what law professors call a “negotiated paragraph,” the court reaches its main result.

After weighing all the applicable legal tests, it “conclude(s) that Hurst should not be applied retroactively to Asay’s case,” then says “we limit our holding to this context.” The justices immediately add, however, the tests “weigh against applying Hurst retroactively to all death case litigation in Florida.”

In her opinion, Pariente later explains the ruling “limit(s) the retroactive application of Hurst v. Florida to those cases that were not final when the United States Supreme Court decided Ring,” calling that unconstitutional.

Polston wrote that “the majority opinion has incorrectly limited the retroactive application of Hurst” in the context of the Ring case, that first said juries alone must decide on “aggravating factors” for the death penalty.

The majority “bar(s) relief to even those defendants who, prior to Ring, had properly asserted, presented, and preserved challenges to the lack of jury fact finding and unanimity in Florida’s capital sentencing procedure,” he said. “This Court need not tumble down the dizzying rabbit hole of untenable line drawing ….”

“Every pre-Ring defendant has been found by a jury to have wrongfully murdered his or her victim,” Polston said. “(T)his Court now limits the application of Hurst, resulting in the State wrongfully executing those defendants.

“It seems axiomatic that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’; yet, this Court essentially condones that outcome with its very limited interpretation of Hurst’s retroactivity and application.”

And Labarga said separately, “our decision today does not apply to those defendants whose death sentences were imposed … solely as a result of a judicial override,” that is, a judge who imposes death over a jury recommendation of life imprisonment.

“There are only two death row defendants who satisfy this criteria—Matthew Marshall and William Zeigler Jr.,” he writes. “The impact of Hurst … upon their death sentences is an issue for another day.”

Rick Scott picks C. Alan Lawson for Supreme Court

Conservative appellate judge C. Alan Lawson will become the next Florida Supreme Court justice, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday morning.

Lawson

Lawson, who will replace retiring Justice James E.C. Perry, is chief judge of the state’s 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach. Perry’s retirement is effective Dec. 30; Lawson’s first day is the 31st.

“He’s got a 20-year track record, he’s been a public servant, he clearly believes in following the rule of law,” Scott said, standing next to Lawson – his first ever Supreme Court pick – and his family. “He is going to do a good job … and he’s not going to legislate from the bench.” (Video of announcement here.)

Lawson now makes a third conservative vote on a seven-member state Supreme Court that often splits 5-2 on matters of public policy. To date, Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston have been the court’s most reliable conservative voices.

In a statement, both men “applaud(ed)” the appointment, calling Lawson “a true leader (who) brings strong conservative principles” to the court.

Conservative lawmakers and business interests have long derided the court – specifically its liberal-leaning triumvirate of Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy A. Quince and R. Fred Lewis – for “judicial overreach,” saying the court often breached the separation of powers between the lawmaking and judicial branches.

Recently, they denounced decisions chipping away at protections afforded business owners in the state’s workers’ compensation law, striking down caps on attorney fees and ordering disability benefits extended for injured workers.

The state’s highest court also becomes more white; Perry is black. With his departure, Quince is the now the lone African American on the court.

This isn’t Lawson’s first attempt to join the court. Perry, whom Lawson is replacing, beat him in 2009 for the opening created by the retirement of Justice Charles T. Wells.

Lawson appeared with his wife Julie and son Caleb, as well as his father and mother, Charles and Velma Lawson, sister Laurie Lawson Cox and brother-in-law Thomas Cox.

Lawson, whom Scott had first mistakenly introduced as “Lanson,” told reporters that the judiciary’s mandate to interpret laws “came with a promise, that it would be exercised with judicial restraint.”

“There are a lot of precedents from the Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court that details what judicial restraint means and is not supposed to mean,” he added. Many critics have noted that “judges and courts have moved away from what is clearly laid out … that says, ‘this is what courts are supposed to do.’ “

When asked if he could name decisions in which judges have “overreached,” he said, “No. It’s not ethical for judges to comment on issues that could come before the Supreme Court.”

Lawson was then backed by “religious conservatives and the National Rifle Association,” wrote politics reporter William March in a February 2009 story for the now-defunct Tampa Tribune, while Perry was favored by “liberal groups and black leaders.” Those backers were largely silent this time around.

The appointment created a quandary for then-GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, March wrote, “pit(ting) conservatives in his own party (then Republican) against a minority community Crist is courting.” He eventually picked Perry, who joined the court the next month.

Lawson, born in Lakeland, grew up in Tallahassee. He graduated from Tallahassee Community College and later Clemson University with a degree in Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management, according to his online bio. He got his law degree from Florida State University in 1987.

He was in private practice for several years before becoming an assistant county attorney in Orange County and then a circuit judge in 2002.

Lawson also was a Florida Bar exam question writer and grader. He moved to the 5th District appellate bench in 2006. Both his judicial appointments were by Republican former Gov. Jeb Bush.

In 2012, he was a member of a three-judge appeals panel that considered a custody battle between two women who were formerly in a relationship.

The majority said both women have parental rights, but Lawson wrote “a blistering dissent,” in which he said a child can have only one mother, according to the Associated Press.

The court shouldn’t recognize two mothers “unless we are also willing to invalidate laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, bigamy, polygamy, or adult incestuous relationships on the same basis,” Lawson said. In a 4-3 opinion, the state Supreme Court later said the non-birth mother could seek shared custody.

Scott picked Lawson over two other conservative finalists for the post: Wendy W. Berger, another judge on the 5th District Court of Appeal, and Dan Gerber, an Orlando civil-trial defense attorney.

Scott “had three excellent candidates to consider,” Florida Bar President William J. Schifino Jr. said in a statement.

“I applaud the governor, the Judicial Nominating Commission and the process, and very much look forward to working with soon-to-be Justice Lawson in the future,” Schifino said. “He has demonstrated himself to be an excellent jurist and someone who has the best interests of all Floridians at heart.”

Business interests also commended the pick.

William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a group created by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said Lawson’s appointment is a “reaffirmation of our system of checks and balances between the three branches of government.”

Scott “based his decision on the precepts that judges should strictly adhere to the rule of law,” he said in an email. The governor’s “thoughtful choice in this solemn duty will have a profoundly positive impact on Florida for a long time.”

Tom Feeney, CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, added that his members have been “anxious for the day that a majority of the Florida Supreme Court can restore respect for the constitutional separation of powers, including legitimate powers of the popularly elected members of the legislative and executive branches.”

“If the Florida Supreme Court will exercise only those legitimate judicial powers, such as deciding controversies of fact and enforcing the language of our duly enacted statutes and Constitution, as opposed to arbitrarily injecting their personal and political preferences, a constitutional balance can be restored.”

Scott could have the opportunity himself to put a conservative majority on the bench. Pariente, Quince and Lewis face mandatory retirement in early 2019, and Scott said he plans to replace them before he leaves office that January.

“I will appoint three more justices the morning I finish my term,” he said.

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz quickly reacted, saying she was “deeply troubled” by Scott’s position.

“The Supreme Court is no place for political gamesmanship,” she said in a statement. “If Gov. Scott follows through on this assertion, he risks setting off a contentious legal battle with his successor that would mar the transition process and throw our state’s highest court into uncertainty.

“The governor should look to the example set by Govs. Buddy MacKay and Jeb Bush in 1998 and do the right thing on behalf of Floridians,” she added, referring to their joint appointment of Quince.

Tallahassee residency case becomes statewide issue

Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox lives in the City of Tallahassee. While that should not come as man-bites-dog news, it’s not that simple in Florida’s capital.

The residency of the former Tallahassee Mayor and Florida Democratic Party Chair was challenged in court by Dr. Erwin Jackson, a frequent city government and Maddox critic. Maddox maintains two domiciles; a rented home within the city limits and another larger residence outside the city, which he owns.

The home outside the city limits was put on the market in 2012 while Maddox was a candidate for the Commission and was put on the market again as he sought re-election this year. Jackson points to that and questions other indicators he says makes the case Maddox lives in the home outside the district.

Second Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled in Maddox’s favor on three occasions only to be overruled and scolded for “abuse of discretion” by a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal (DCA). After Dodson had recused himself, colleague Karen Gievers drew the short straw and was assigned the case.

In her 28-page ruling, Gievers said Jackson “has offered neither documents or testimony that establish Maddox’s legal residency on August 30, 2016, at the time of the election was somewhere other than the North Adams Street (city) address.”

She further ruled the “overwhelming credible evidence” shows Maddox lives in the city and that he did not try to “game the system.”

Gievers addressed several questions posed by Jackson and his legal team. Among those were the registrations of vehicles registered to Maddox using the county address between 2000 and 2015.

All eight were changed to the downtown address during calendar year 2016. Gievers admitted the registration changes were “not as timely as the statutes provide,” but that fact still does not prove residence on a particular date.

For the record, Maddox is registered to vote in Precinct 1302 according to the Leon County Supervisor of Elections. His rented home in the city is within that precinct, allowing him to answer in the affirmative whether he voted for himself.

The DCA had given a deadline of December 6 for the lower court to make a ruling. Unless they find some procedural error, this should put the Maddox residency matter to rest.

But there is one other matter still percolating within the legal system. The City of Tallahassee has asked the Florida Supreme Court to overrule the DCA hold that local governments should have the final say on residency.

The DCA held the Tallahassee City Charter is subservient to state law, but local governments wish to protect their autonomy to decide who meets the criteria established by their respective charters.

This is a big deal to them. When I published the first article on this topic, I heard from a former Jackson County Commissioner in total agreement with the City’s position.

On Monday, the Florida League of Cities, representing more than 400 communities around the state, turned this into a statewide matter. They, too, are asking for the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in.

“The League’s membership has a significant interest in the question before the Court in this proceeding,” they wrote in their filing document. “The governing documents of many of the League’s members contain provisions that, like the provision at issue here, authorize municipal councils and commissions to be the judges of the election and qualification of their members.”

Jackson and his legal team responded on Friday while Maddox and the City responded to the Supreme Court on Monday.

No matter whose side one takes in Jackson v. Maddox, it is probably a good thing to have some clarification. There are good reasons for the communities to set their own standards. There are also good reasons to be on the lookout for circumstances where the Establishment is protecting its own.

Merry Christmas from Tallahassee or Leon County, whichever applies.

Update: On Wednesday, the Florida Supreme Court issued the following order:

“It appearing that Respondent, Dr. Erwin D. Jackson, has declined to seek review of the circuit court’s ‘Order on Pending Motions and Non-Jury Trial/Final Evidentiary Hearing, and Final Judgment,’ that the district court has lifted its stay, and that Respondent, Scott Maddox, has been sworn in as a city commissioner, Petitioner (the city of Tallahassee) is hereby directed to show cause by 3:00 P.M. on Thursday, December 8, 2016, why the petition for writ of prohibition should not be denied as moot. Respondents may serve a reply by 3:00 P.M. on Friday, December 9, 2016.”

Martin Dyckman: End the ‘shame’ by restoring voting rights to ex-felons

In a pair of Context Florida columns titled, “The Shame of Florida,” Darryl Paulson has documented how Florida infamously leads the nation in the number of people—1.7-million—who are permanently barred from voting as ex-felons regardless of whether they are good citizens now. In Florida, as in Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee and other former Confederate states, these bans were imposed or radically expanded in the aftermath of Reconstruction with the plain intent of suppressing black votes.

More than 10 percent of voting-age Floridians are victimized by this provision of Florida’s Constitution — among blacks, however, 23 percent are.

“Studies have shown that blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites for the same felony issue, and blacks are much more likely to be convicted than whites for the same felony offense,” wrote Paulson, an emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida Bayboro.

Not until after the Civil War did Florida ban all voters with felony convictions.

The federal courts have been willfully blind to Florida’s massive violation of our must fundamental civil rights.

It’s time to test the courts again.

The racist motive and subsequent effects were argued in a class-action challenge to Florida’s practice in a 2005 case styled Johnson V. Bush. The plaintiffs asserted violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, overturned a panel that had ruled against the state. Rosemary Barkett, a former justice of the Florida Supreme Court, dissented from the erroneous 10-2 decision. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit’s rationale was a case of deliberate judicial myopia. It took the absence of recorded racist statements from the 1860 debates as an excuse to ignore the obvious circumstantial evidence that racism was the whole story.

The majority then reasoned that even had that been so, it was laundered clean by constitutional revisions in the Twentieth Century.

That was ivory tower nonsense.

The 1965 revision commission whose work led to Florida’s present Constitution three years later did not have even one minority member. There were none in the Legislature, where the political climate in Tallahassee was still segregationist.

A detailed history posted by the Brennan Center for Justice notes that eight of the thirty-seven members of that revision commission also served on the notorious Johns Committee, a joint legislative panel that was set up to attack civil rights organizations.

One member of the revision commission, Richard A. Pettigrew, tried to modify the constitutional ban to let the Legislature decide what crimes, if any, should disqualify a voter. Pettigrew, a Miami legislator and future House speaker, was defeated in a committee chaired by a Johns Committee member who was a militant segregationist.

There have been two more revision commissions, in 1978 and 1998, but neither took up the subject.

“I am embarrassed to say this was not discussed,” Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, the 1978 chairman, wrote to me recently.

Since those years, circumstances have changed so profoundly as to make the case that Florida is deliberately wielding its historic ban to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The governors and Cabinet, sitting as the state clemency board, had been regularly considering applications for restoration of civil rights.

Gov. Charlie Crist accelerated the process in 2007, so much so that about 155,000 people regained their voting rights during his four-year term.

But in 2011, his successor Rick Scott and the new attorney general, Pam Bondi, made the rules so regressive—among other things, by imposing a five-year waiting period—that only 2,200 applications were approved during the first five and a half years of his term. The cumbersome process discourages would-be applicants, and that is not likely just coincidence.

What Scott, Bondi, and clemency board members Adam Putnam and Jeff Atwater did to the process makes the new case that belongs in a federal court. The governor and Cabinet are deliberately — deliberately — wielding the Florida Constitution as a blunt weapon of voter suppression, and they’re doing it in a way that had not been done before. The original intent of disenfranchisement no longer matters. It is the present glaring intent that does.

In the same year that they sabotaged the clemency rules, Scott and Bondi approved legislation that removed felony convictions as an automatic bar to licensing in certain regulated professions.

In other words, ex-felons can be trusted with other people’s money and property, but not with the vote.

There’s no sense in such a distinction except for the obvious: ex-felons are disproportionately black, and blacks vote disproportionately Democratic.

This is not an issue that only Democrats care about. Paulson is a Republican; he points out that the Koch Foundation and the International Association of Chiefs of Police also support civil rights restoration, and they are hardly liberal voices.

The Constitutional Revision Commission that will meet next year ought to right the old wrong, but the prospects are poor, since Scott and Republican legislative leaders will be appointing nearly all the members.

An initiative pending Supreme Court approval to be placed on the 2018 ballot would restore voting rights automatically to everyone who completes a prison or probation sentence except in cases of murder and sex crimes. But even if the court says yes, as it should, the sponsors have a long way to go toward enough signatures to get it on the ballot.

Interestingly enough, the court’s deadline for objections to the initiative passed without any being filed. There was, however, a powerful memorandum in support from Ion Sancho, Leon County’s retiring supervisor of elections, and his Broward County counterpart, Dr. Brenda Snipes.

“The scope of felony disenfranchisement laws does not befit our great democracy,” they told the court, adding that no other democracy bares voters for life. “People who have completed their sentences and reentered society are presumably working and paying taxes in communities throughout the state. These individuals, like other Floridians, should be accorded the basic rights of citizenship,” they said.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper now known as the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in North Carolina, where anyone is allowed to register and vote upon completing all terms of a felony sentence.

Broward judge to be publicly reprimanded Feb. 7

The Florida Supreme Court on Monday “commanded” a Broward judge to come to Tallahassee Feb. 7 for a public reprimand.

Circuit Judge John Patrick Contini also must write a letter of apology, undergo judicial mentoring, complete a mental health program, and pay administrative costs, according to a court order.

He was brought up on judicial misconduct charges last year.

Contini was accused of sending a document on how to argue for lesser sentences to an assistant public defender without giving a copy to prosecutors. Contini himself is a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney.

When prosecutors sought to disqualify him from pending criminal cases because of an appearance of bias, he rejected the request and lashed out against them, making “disparaging, demeaning remarks,” an investigative report says.

They included his wanting to “spank” and “ream out” the lawyers who sought to disqualify him. Contini later admitted he “‘lost it’ in court, ‘overreacted,’ ‘personified incivility,’ and had ‘no excuse’ for his comments.”

A Judicial Qualifications Commission panel noted that “Contini was a new judge, who … made a series of significant missteps.” It also said he “immediately accepted responsibility for his conduct, expressed sincere remorse, and apologized.”

The Supreme Court, however, noted that his “conduct was as improper as it was rude.”

Though he’s practiced law for 31 years, Contini was only elected judge in 2014 and on the bench since January 2015, the report says. He was given a hefty docket of more than 1,000 cases.

Florida Supreme Court rejects shift in insurance claims law

The Florida Supreme Court has overturned a lower-court ruling that would have made it harder for policyholders to collect on insurance policies when there is more than one cause for their losses.

At issue in Sebo v. American Home Assurance Co. was competing doctrines for resolving claims under all-risk policies in those circumstances.

Under the so-called “efficient proximate cause” theory, if the first cause of any damage — say, construction defects — isn’t explicitly covered, nothing else is.

Under the “concurrent law doctrine,” however, a homeowner can collect if any of the damage is covered.

“We conclude that when independent perils converge and no single cause can be considered the sole or proximate cause, it is appropriate to apply the concurring cause doctrine,” Justice James E.C. Perry Thursday wrote for a 5-2 majority.

That’s been the law in Florida for 30 years, said Richard Hugh Lumpkin of Ver Ploeg & Lumpkin in Miami, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of United Policyholders, a consumer group.

Still, the 2nd District Court of Appeal applied the stricter policy in ruling on the case. Other states, including California, use that standard.

“What the Florida Supreme Court is saying is that you apply the policy as written. There’s nothing new or different about that,” Lumpkin said.

“But if the efficient proximate cause doctrine had been made law in Florida, that would have changed things — made it more difficult for folks in Florida to collect their due.”

It also would have injected uncertainty into the insurance industry — both for policyholders and their insurers, he said.

“Let’s just say we breathed a sigh of relief” at the high court’s ruling, Lumpkin said.

The case involved a home in Naples, insured for $8 million, that had to be torn down after design and construction defects led to damage from rainstorms and Hurricane Wilma in 2005, according to court records.

Perry wrote that because the insurer “did not explicitly avoid applying the (concurrent law doctrine), we find that the plain language of the policy does not preclude recovery in this case.”

Commission settles on three finalists for Supreme Court vacancy

Florida Gov. Rick Scott will pick a new state Supreme Court from one of three finalists.

A state nominating panel on Monday interviewed 11 applicants for the job and then whittled down the list before coming up with a list for Scott.

The panel recommended that Scott consider Charles Alan Lawson, the chief judge for the 5th District Court of Appeal, Wendy Berger, a 5th DCA judge, and attorney Daniel Gerber for the high court.

Some high-profile names were passed over for consideration, including State Attorney Brad King, the lead prosecutor for five central Florida counties, and State Rep. Larry Metz.

The spot on the court is coming open because Justice James Perry is stepping down on Dec. 30 because he’s reached the mandatory retirement age.

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