North Florida casino campaign still wants Supreme Court review of ballot language

Supreme Court of Florida
Florida Voters In Charge argues the petition failure should not stop Supreme Court review.

Even though its petition drive failed to garner enough valid voter signatures to qualify a North Florida casino issue for the ballot, Florida Voters in Charge (FVIC) still wants the Supreme Court of Florida to review its ballot language.

The organization that pushed to get a North Florida casino issue onto the 2022 statewide General Election ballot — but failed to meet the state’s petition requirements — asked the Supreme Court to render an advisory opinion on the ballot language review anyway. That would be just in case FVIC wins a lawsuit challenging the validity of its petition counts that came up short on Feb. 1.

FVIC asked the Supreme Court to put together a brief-filing schedule that would lead the court to issue an advisory opinion by April 1.

The organization’s request could redefine the role of the Supreme Court in constitutional amendment petitions. It argues the court must go forward with its business of reviewing ballot language regardless of whether an initiative has the signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Supreme Court review of the ballot language was one of two requirements for placement on the ballot. FVIC is not giving up on either, as it also contests the failure of its petition drive.

On Feb. 1, FVIC asked the Supreme Court for more time in a brief filed by James McKee of Foley & Lardner of Tallahassee and Jessie Panuccio of Boies Schiller Flexner of Fort Lauderdale.

The Supreme Court then ordered FVIC to show why their request for review of the ballot language was not moot, now that the deadline has passed to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot.

“The case is not moot and this Court’s jurisdiction persists,” the organization replied in a brief filed Monday.

FVIC argued the issue of “mootness” shouldn’t even be a consideration. Under the 1986 amendment to the Florida Constitution, the court’s review of proposed constitutional amendment language is triggered automatically by an earlier verified petition count threshold, which the organization cleared in December. Therefore, the group’s attorneys argued the failure to reach the law’s second count threshold, the one qualifying for ballot placement, shouldn’t matter to the court.

Plus, the organization’s lawyers argued, there’s the matter of the lawsuit pursued by FVIC against Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee. Filed Jan. 31, the day before the petition deadline, that suit contests the official count of verified petition signatures. It charges that the law, Lee’s directives, and the activities of Florida’s 67 county supervisors of elections all were flawed.

“The signature count for 2022 is in dispute and subject to pending litigation,” FVIC’s response adds. “If FVIC prevails in that litigation, the official signature count may show that the petition has qualified for the 2022 ballot. Accordingly, the case is not moot.”

The Supreme Court gave Attorney General Ashley Moody until Friday to reply to FVIC’s brief.

FVIC is a political committee backed by more than $73 million from Las Vegas Sands, a Nevada-based gaming company, seeking to get voter approval of a constitutional amendment that would allow development of a casino in North Florida.

By the state’s Feb. 1 deadline, the campaign had managed to get just 814,000 petition signatures verified. That is about 77,000 short of the bare minimum Florida law required to be turned in by the deadline in order to qualify a constitutional amendment for the November General Election ballot.

The petition drive fell far shorter than that. Many of the verified signatures were gathered in the wrong congressional districts. The law requires a minimum number of statewide signatures as well as minimum numbers of signatures in each of Florida’s 27 congressional districts. FVIC was short in 17 districts, including being about 20,000 signatures short in each of two Panhandle districts where the proposal apparently was less popular.

The campaign also was marred by widespread reports of alleged petition fraud and a massive petition failure rate. Several law enforcement investigations are underway. Some supervisors of elections said it was the worst case of invalid voters’ signatures they had ever seen in petitions.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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