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Supreme Court explains its OK of victims’ rights ballot language

The Florida Supreme Court, as promised, issued its written decision explaining why it allowed the Constitution Revision Commission’s victims’ rights amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot — and the majority swept aside complaints the ballot language is misleading.

”In this case, the ballot title and summary comply with the statutory word limitations. Additionally, the title and summary inform voters of the chief purpose of the proposal and do not mislead regarding its scope and effect,” said the majority of Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Jorge Labarga, Alan Lawson and Ricky Polston.

A dissent, however, predicted the measure would bog down the courts in disputes pitting its list of protections for victims against defendants’ long-established due-process rights.

“I have genuine concerns that the new, comprehensive manual of victims’ rights created by Amendment 6 would, in fact, impact our criminal justice system and the rights of the accused,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote.

“At the least, these changes will likely cause a wave of litigation in which the courts will be asked to resolve conflicts between victims’ and defendants’ enumerated constitutional rights — including defendants’ constitutional rights to speedy trial, due process, and confrontation,” she added.

Crime victims already enjoy the right the right “to be informed, to be present, and to be heard when relevant, at all crucial stages of criminal proceedings, to the extent that these rights do not interfere with the constitutional rights of the accused.”

The proposed amendment, sometimes referred to as Marsy’s Law, after a California crime victim, would enact a long list of additional procedural safeguards, including the right to be informed of any criminal, appellate, or clemency proceedings, plus the right to a speedy trial and time limits on appeals.

Those rights would extend to juvenile justice proceedings.

The proposal, which was ‘bundled’ with other issues, also would raise judges’ mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75 and eliminate deference to agencies’ regulations.

A Tallahassee judge, ruling in a challenge brought by the League of Women Voters of Florida and two private citizens, found the language misleading and ordered it struck from the ballot.

But the court approved the same language in an order issued on Sept. 7, saying the justices would explain their reasoning later.

The majority opinion stresses the court’s obligation to exercise “extreme care, caution, and restraint” before denying voters a say on proposed amendments.

They waived away concerns about defendant’s rights on a number of points, including speedy trials: “The defendant would still retain a right to a speedy trial that would not be subordinated to the newly created victims’ right.”

Moreover, “if the amendment passes, the defendant may still waive his or her right to a speedy trial, and a trial court could extend holding the trial beyond the 60 days by entering an order with a justification for doing so even though the victim has demanded a speedy trial.

“A defendant does not have a right to unreasonable delay that would conflict with the newly created victims’ right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay.”

Another argument — that the ballot language is ambiguous about whether corporations could qualify as victims — was not seen as an impediment.

“Nothing in Amendment 6 states whether or not crime victims includes corporations; therefore, the summary accurately reflects the text of Amendment 6,” they said.

“And this court has held that it will not strike a proposal from the ballot based upon an argument concerning the ambiguous legal effect of the amendment’s text rather than the clarity of the ballot title and summary.”

Pariente insisted the proposal “hides the ball” as to its chief purpose — “to underhandedly uproot the long-standing balance between the constitutional rights of the accused and victims.”

Justice Peggy Quince signed on with Pariente. Justice Fred Lewis dissented separately without filing an opinion.

Written By

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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