Florida Supreme Court Archives - Page 5 of 49 - Florida Politics

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

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

Higer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McDonald’s obituary is here.

Florida Supreme Court throws out 4 death sentences

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

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

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

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

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Former South Florida lawmaker suspended from practicing law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court grills Aramis Ayala lawyer over avoidance of death penalty

A dubious-sounding Florida Supreme Court shellacked Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s lawyer during oral arguments Wednesday, questioning her prosecutorial “discretion” in not seeking the death penalty.

“I don’t even see a gray area,” Justice R. Fred Lewis said. “It seems to me that ‘discretion’ is not to ignore Florida law.”

Justice Barbara Pariente also raised concerns over “equal enforcement of the death penalty statute,” suggesting that Ayala created a legal oasis in which murderers will never face the ultimate punishment.

Ayala, elected last year, unilaterally took “the death penalty off the table in the 9th (Judicial) Circuit … (and) she didn’t run on that platform.”

Attorneys for Ayala, who attended Wednesday’s hearing in Tallahassee, and lawyers for Gov. Rick Scott debated Ayala’s request that the court order the governor to return capital punishment cases he reassigned to neighboring 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King.

Ayala is a Democrat; Scott and King are Republicans.

Her attorney, Roy Austin, argued that no law requires her to seek an execution in any given murder case. Austin, who’s been a civil-rights lawyer with the U.S. Justice Department and aide to President Barack Obama, said Scott should be ordered to return the 24 death penalty-eligible cases he took away from her office.

But Justice Charles Canady, a member of the court’s conservative-leaning minority, countered: “That discretion has to be exercised on a case-by-case basis, rather than a blanket policy … It’s a very absolutist position you are taking.”

Florida Solicitor General Amit Agarwal, who argued his case without notes, represented Scott. He told the court there was “no prinicipled (way) to defend a blanket policy.”

The conflict fight began in March when Ayala said her office would no longer seek the death penalty, explaining the process is costly, it’s not a crime deterrent and it drags on for years for the victims’ relatives. House Republicans soon castigated her and moved to strip funding from her office.

She announced her decision as her office was starting to build a case against Markeith Loyd in the fatal shooting of an Orlando police lieutenant and his pregnant ex-girlfriend.

“No one individual has the right … to make a policy judgment that has practical effect of nullifying” the state’s capital punishment scheme, Agarwal said. “… No one has done what the petitioner has done here, to say ‘in my mind, (the death penalty) should never be enforced.’ “

Agarwal also said Scott gave Ayala an opportunity to recuse herself from death penalty cases, which she declined.

“And reassignment doesn’t let the governor tell prosecutors how to pursue a case,” he said, adding that Scott can’t “micromanage” murder prosecutions.

After the hearing, Austin told reporters “the law is very clear here.”

“There’s nothing that requires a case-by-case decision,” he said. “There’s nothing in the law that requires her to seek the death penalty.”

Ayala spoke briefly, defending her decision to abstain from seeking executions as punishment, saying she was never “given a blueprint.”

The justices did not give a timeline on when they will rule.

(This post includes background from The Associated Press, reprinted with permission.)

Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala fight heads to state high court

Does Florida’s governor have the power to take away a prosecutor’s case if he disagrees with a decision not to seek the death penalty?

The state’s highest court will hear arguments Wednesday over that question in a legal fight between Gov. Rick Scott and State Attorney Aramis Ayala, whose district covers the Orlando area.

Their fight began in March when Ayala, a Democrat, said her office would no longer seek the death penalty, explaining the process is costly, it’s not a crime deterrent and it drags on for years for the victims’ relatives. Ayala announced her decision as her office was starting to build a case against Markeith Loyd in the fatal shooting of an Orlando police lieutenant and his pregnant ex-girlfriend. With her decision, Ayala, intentionally or not, thrust herself into the forefront of the anti-death penalty movement.

Scott, a Republican, responded by reassigning her office’s death penalty cases to a prosecutor in a neighboring district, and top Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee announced budget cuts to Ayala’s office.

A spokeswoman for Ayala this week said she wouldn’t be talking about the case before the hearing.

In court papers, Ayala argued that it was unlawful for Scott to take away her cases since she is independently elected by voters, and that he could only remove her from cases for “good and sufficient reason,” none of which were present in their disagreement over the death penalty.

“Removing an elected prosecutor from a case because of a disagreement over her exercise of discretion is unprecedented,” Ayala’s attorneys said in court papers. “Every day state attorneys here in Florida make important decision on who to charge, what to charge, and what to prioritize. Giving the governor the tremendous and unfettered discretion to interfere in that decision making, would be unprecedented and could undermine the entire justice system in Florida.”

Scott argued in court papers that Ayala is refusing to follow Florida law by making a blanket decision not to seek the death penalty, and that her decision sets a dangerous precedent.

“The novel and extraordinary constitutional authority Ayala asserts, if accepted, will not just apply to prosecutors who decline to enforce the state’s death penalty laws. It will also apply to prosecutors who disagree with other kinds of criminal laws and penalties, including, for example, hate-crimes enhancements, laws that ban the open carrying of firearms and campaign finance regulations,” Scott’s attorneys said in court papers.

Florida’s death penalty has been in flux for the past year or so.

Executions in Florida ground to a halt last year after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges. The Florida Legislature responded by overhauling the law to let the death penalty be imposed by at least a 10-2 jury vote. The state Supreme Court struck down the law and required unanimous jury decisions for capital punishment. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill requiring a unanimous jury recommendation.

Ayala, who previously worked as a public defender and prosecutor, was a virtual unknown when she ran for state attorney last year. With an infusion of more than $1 million from a Washington-based political action committee with ties to liberal Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros, Ayala unseated the incumbent state attorney in the Democratic primary and became Florida’s first African-American state attorney.

In her campaign, she promised to listen to communities that hadn’t had a voice in the past. Given that Florida’s death sentence was in a legal holding pattern at the time, capital punishment never came up during Ayala’s campaign.

A host of civil rights activists and legal scholars have come out in support of Ayala. Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Florida House, and other state attorneys, have denounced her decision.

“Ms. Ayala effectively abolished the death penalty … by implementing a hard-and-fast rule that removes her decision-making on a case-by-case basis, which is beyond the scope of her prosecutorial independence and discretion,” the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys said in court papers.

Ayala has also sued Scott in federal court, but asked it to wait until the Florida Supreme Court lawsuit is resolved.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott says citrus veto is constitutionally valid

Gov. Rick Scott responded Monday to a lawsuit brought by homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were torn down by the state, saying his veto of reimbursements to homeowners was “consistent with his constitutional authority.”

The homeowners have asked the Florida Supreme Court to undo Scott’s veto of more than $37 million.

The Republican-controlled Legislature agreed to pay homeowners in both Broward and Lee counties whose trees were torn down in a failed attempt to eradicate citrus canker. The money was to pay off judgments that had been won against the state.

In court filings, attorneys for the homeowners argue Scott lacked legal authority to veto the money because a court had already ruled the state violated the private property rights of homeowners.

In a 26-page response by Scott general counsel Daniel Nordby, the governor said the petition “should be dismissed or denied” in part because, under the state constitution, Scott “may exercise his veto power for any reason whatsoever.”

It goes on to say there’s “no basis for the exercise of this Court’s jurisdiction and … there is no legal merit to the (homeowners’) claims.” Specifically, they have no “clear legal right to the requested relief,” mentioning lower court action still pending.

Scott said in his veto message that he vetoed the money because there are other citrus canker lawsuits still ongoing.

Moreover, “separation of powers concerns also counsel strongly against any claim that the judicial branch may direct a governor regarding whether and how to exercise his discretionary line-item veto authority with respect to specific appropriations,” Scott’s filing says.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater—who leaves office Friday—also responded to the suit, taking “no position” but saying “he is not a proper party to this proceeding.” Atwater is taking a job as chief financial officer for Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

And Secretary of State Ken Detzner—a Scott appointee—filed a response, saying the homeowners have “no clear legal right to have the Governor ‘undo’ his veto,” and thus Detzner has “no duty to ‘expunge’ the Governor’s vetoes from the public records of Florida.”

Both officials were also named in the petition for writ of mandamus, a court order to an elected official to perform a certain action.

The homeowners have till noon Tuesday to file any replies.

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

Former Florida Supreme Court justice dies at age 93

Parker Lee McDonald

A former Florida Supreme Court justice who wrote a decision that prevented lawyers from excluding jurors because of their race has died.

Court spokesman Craig Waters announced that Parker Lee McDonald died Saturday at his home in Tallahassee. McDonald was 93.

McDonald, who was born in Sebring, was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1979 by then-Gov. Bob Graham. McDonald served 15 years on the court and retired from the court after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.

He authored the decision regarding jurors in 1984.

He was nicknamed the “Whistling Justice” because a security guard stopped him on his first day and told him no whistling was allowed in the court building. McDonald told the guard he could do what he wanted since he was a justice.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Jorge Labarga names Council of Business Partners members

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga on Friday announced the first members of a panel to advise the Florida Supreme Court‘s commission on helping the state’s poor and working poor get legal help.

The Council of Business Partners will advise the Commission on Access to Civil Justice, created by Labarga in 2014.

“Employers, too, have a stake in this,” Labarga said in a statement. “Employees who have challenges accessing justice have higher absenteeism and reduced productivity.

“It is in all our interests to address access to justice,” he added.

Those appointed include:

— Tere Blanca, president and CEO of Blanca Commercial Real Estate in Miami, who will serve as liaison between the Council of Business Partners and the Commission on Access to Civil Justice.

— David Faulkenberry, president of FBMC Benefits Management, Inc., Tallahassee.

— Cathy Roth, senior vice president of legal affairs and general counsel, Universal Parks & Resorts, Orlando.

— Byron Russell, chair and CEO, Cheney Brothers, Inc., West Palm Beach. 

— Lynne Wines, Harvard University, Advanced Leadership fellow, Fort Lauderdale.

The commission has been seeking solutions to the perennial problem of providing civil legal help to those who can’t afford it. That includes things like child custody and landlord-tenant cases.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons