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Clashes emerge on education amendment — two decades later

One group, describing itself as the “framers” of an education constitutional amendment, was largely appointed by former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. Another group was appointed by 1990s-era Republican legislative leaders.

But two decades after the groups served together on the 1997-1998 Florida Constitution Revision Commission, they are clashing in the state Supreme Court.

The root of the clash is an amendment that the Constitution Revision Commission placed on the 1998 ballot that spelled out a duty for the state to provide a high-quality system of public schools. The Florida Supreme Court is now considering a case about whether the state has properly carried out the amendment — and the two factions of the long-adjourned Constitution Revision Commission have injected themselves into the case on opposite sides.

The latest move came Thursday when the group of six Republican appointees asked for permission to file a friend-of-the-court brief that would oppose a stance that the 10 “framers” took in a brief early this month. The Supreme Court on Friday granted permission for the additional brief.

The groups include movers and shakers of 1990s-era Florida politics. Among the framers’ group are former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, former Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan and former House Speaker Jon Mills. Among the opposing group are former Senate President and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and former Senate President Jim Scott.

The underlying lawsuit at the Supreme Court involves a voter-approved 1998 constitutional amendment that said it is a “paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” The amendment fleshed that out, in part, by saying adequate provision will be made for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system” of public schools.

Critics of the education system, including an organization known as Citizens for Strong Schools, have waged a legal battle in recent years arguing that the state has not done enough to meet the requirements of the amendment.

But a Leon County circuit judge and the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled against the plaintiffs. The appeals court said, in part, that the issues in the case “raise political questions not subject to judicial review, because the relevant constitutional text does not contain judicially discoverable standards by which a court can decide whether the state has complied.”

The plaintiffs then appealed to the Supreme Court, which has agreed to take up the case.

The framers’ group — which also includes 1997-1998 commission members Martha Barnett, Robert Brochin, Ellen Freidin, Clay Henderson, Robert Nabors, H.T. Smith and Stephen Zack — took the unusual step of seeking permission from the Supreme Court to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the plaintiffs. That brief, filed July 2, disputed the 1st District Court of Appeal’s conclusion that judges should not resolve the issues about the education system.

“To find that there are no judicially manageable standards is to find (the constitutional amendment’s) text and its intent meaningless and unenforceable,” the framers’ brief said. “Under that interpretation, a future legislature could appropriate one dollar for public education or allow patently unsafe public schools and the courts could do nothing.”

But in a filing Thursday seeking permission from the Supreme Court to file the counter brief, the six-member group — which also includes 1998 commission members Carlos Alfonso, Chris Corr, Valerie Evans and Paul Hawkes — backed the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling.

Also, the group argued that the Supreme Court should not take into consideration of the views of individual members of the 37-member commission, which meets every 20 years to suggest changes to the Constitution.

“To present evidence now as to the CRC’s intentions in 1998 through some, but not all, CRC members would not reflect the views of the entire 37-member CRC,” the filing said. “Therefore, (the six) members have interest in this appeal to emphasize that their individual views, and views of other members of the CRC, are not probative of the meaning of the Florida Constitution and should not be used in determining whether (the education constitutional amendment) sets forth justiciable standards.”

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