October 14, 2016

Court invalidates Florida's death penalty law -- requires a unanimous jury verdict

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that Florida’s revamped death penalty law was unconstitutional, declaring that death sentences must be determined by a unanimous jury and triggering the potential re-sentencing of hundreds of inmates on death row.

In a 5-2 ruling, the court ordered Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to try again to rewrite the law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in January which allowed for 10 members of a 12-member jury to impose a death sentence. The court went beyond imposing a unanimous jury, it also raised the bar in capital cases by declaring that juries, not judges, must unanimously agree on all components of the evidence relating to the death sentence.

“We...hold, based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that in order for the trial court to impose a sentence of death, the jury’s recommended sentence of death must be unanimous,” the court majority wrote. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented, saying the court did not have the authority to reject the law.

The immediate effect of the ruling is that more than 40 inmates who have not completed their death penalty review must be given a new sentencing trial, any capital cases pending in Florida must be decided by a unanimous jury for the first time since the death penalty was restored in Florida in 1972, and the 385 inmates now on death row have a new legal avenue to seek another sentencing trial.

“Today’s decisions will mean that all defendants on Florida’s death row whose cases are pending on direct appeal will be entitled to new sentencing hearings unless the state can prove its heavy burden of showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the error in their cases would not have affected the jury verdicts in capital sentencing,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, which joined in the case.

Stephen Harper, of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at the Florida International School of Law, said the ruling “will clearly limit the number of cases in which prosecutors seek death because the burden of proof is harder and stronger.”

This is the second time this year that Florida’s death penalty law has been held unconstitutional. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the state’s death penalty law that allowed a judge to overrule a jury verdict and impose a death sentence. The court said that in that case, known as Hurst v. Florida, that Florida’s system was a violation of a defendant’s right to a jury trial.

Florida lawmakers responded by rewriting the state law, replacing the judge’s override and requiring a 10-12 vote of a jury to send someone to death. The law required that juries in future capital cases must agree unanimously and in writing on the aggravating factors before imposing a death sentence.

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October 12, 2016

Former Sen. Bob Graham praises new law allowing 9/11 victims' families to sue Saudi government

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Former Sen. Bob Graham played a major role in compelling the long-delayed release three months ago of a classified document showing possible ties between Saudi officials and some of the 9/11 hijackers.

Now the Floridian, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed almost 3,000 people, is hailing congressional passage and veto override of a new law allowing the victims' families to sue the Saudi government for alleged complicity.

"Several positive things are going to happen now," Graham told the Miami Herald. "The victims' families will have an opportunity for justice. And Saudi Arabia will be disabused of any idea that it has immunity from responsibility for its role in 9/11."

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Several of them lived in Sarasota before the attacks and, while living there, had contacts with high-ranking Saudi officials. They also left the United States shortly before the attacks.

Graham said that even when he was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and held a high security clearance, the U.S. government withheld information about the Saudis' ties to 9/11 from him and other members of Congress.

"But from what I know today, there is ample evidence that 9/11 would not have happened but for the assistance provided by Saudi Arabia," Graham said. "The results of that assistance was (nearly) 3,000 persons murdered, 90 percent of them Americans. And a new wave of terrorism with Saudi financial and operational support has beset the world."

The House and the Senate, by overwhelming margins in both chambers, voted last month to override President Barack Obama's veto of the bill permitting lawsuits against Saudi Arabia.

Obama said such lawsuits would expose the U.S. government to legal challenges against it for actions abroad by American armed forces. CIA Director John Brennan said lawsuits against Saudi Arabia would threaten U.S. national security.

After the Senate voted 97-1 to override Obama's veto of the measure, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest criticized the move as "the most embarrassing thing the Senate has done since 1983," when it had overwhelmingly rejected a veto by President Ronald Reagan.

That override, however, involved a much less consequential land dispute between the government and six retired people.

Earnest last week said the law will force judges to determine whether a government sponsors terrorism, a decision properly left to the president, the State Department and U.S. national security agencies. 

"That was a piece of legislation and now a law that sought to target Saudi Arabia, a country that has not been designated a state sponsor of terrorism," Earnest said. "It does open up a scenario where you have judges at a variety of levels and a variety of different courtrooms, reaching different conclusions about whether or not another country is complicit in sponsoring terrorism.  That's not an effective way for us to confront state sponsors of terror."

The Saudi government bitterly criticized the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, called JASTA, targeting Riyadh.

"The erosion of sovereign immunity will have a negative impact on all nations, including the United States," the Saudi Foreign Ministry said.

But a 9/11 victims advocacy group called September 11th Advocates hailed the new law.

"JASTA will keep Americans safe from terrorists and terrorist funders like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by setting a strong deterrent in holding the Kingdom accountable for its funding and logistical support of terrorist group," the group said Tuesday.

Despite Saudi claims since 9/11 that it is going after radical Islamic citizens, Graham said the changes have been minor.

"What I don't think they've changed is their Wahhabist commitment to the extreme form of Islam, which has served as the primary motivation for thousands of people to adopt jihad as their life goal," he said.

Graham, who retired from the Senate in January 2005 after three terms, said the Obama administration and that of President George W. Bush likely could have prevented Congress from allowing suits against Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. government should have released more information about possible Saudi ties to 9/11, Graham said, and it could have negotiated a settlement enabling the Saudi government to pay victims of the tragedy.

As an example, Graham cited the 2008 deal in which Libya agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of 270 people killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 two decades earlier, in exchange for the dropping of U.S. sanctions.

"It was self-inflicted," Graham said. "The Bush and Obama administrations could have avoided JASTA if they had negotiated with Saudi Arabia through diplomatic channels and if they had voluntarily made more information available about responsibility for 9/11."

Photo credit: Tim Chapman, Miami Herald








September 26, 2016

Digital currency popular in Miami draws congressional scrutiny



WASHINGTON Lawmakers have formed a special group in a bid to stay on top of the exploding use of bitcoins and similar forms of digital currency in Florida and elsewhere in the country.

Miami has become a bitcoin hotbed, which some federal prosecutors say is tied to South Florida’s reputation as a money-laundering hub tied to drug-trafficking.

The new Congressional Blockchain Caucus is named after the online foundation of bitcoins: The blockchain is a digital ledger that records every bitcoin transaction with an encrypted 32-digit code.

“Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize the financial services industry, the U.S. economy and the delivery of government services,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a North Carolina Republican, said of the caucus he helped form.

Bitcoin proponents say it’s a revolutionary way to move value quickly and anonymously from one point to another, whether around the corner or across the globe, with no middlemen, no fees, no central banks, no collection of personal data and almost impenetrable computer security.

In the first money-laundering cases tied to bitcoins, a Miami-Dade judge last month dismissed charges against website designer Michelle Espinoza. He was charged with illegally transmitting $1,500 worth of bitcoins.

Polner ruled that the Bitcoin is not “tangible wealth,” is not backed by any government or bank, and “cannot be hidden under a mattress like cash and gold bars.”

Polner wrote: “Even to someone with limited knowledge in the area, the Bitcoin has a long way to go before it becomes the equivalent of money.”

The judge also said that Florida law’s description of money-laundering is too vague to apply to use of bitcoins.

Espinoza paid his lawyer in bitcoins, which fluctuate in value based on buying and selling demand through digital exchanges.

As of Monday afternoon, one bitcoin was selling for $608, more than double its worth of $298 in January 2015.

Andrew Hinkes, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, said that Polner’s ruling could prompt Florida legislators to pass legislation more focused on bitcoins and other forms of digital currency.

“Hopefully, Florida’s Legislature will consider the impact of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and craft legislation to balance their potential for abuse with their potential to foster innovation, create jobs and generate wealth,” Hinkes wrote on coindesk.com, which provides news about the controversial currencies.

Polner in her ruling also urged state legislators to update its money-laundering laws.

The IRS calls bitcoins “virtual currencies” and describes them as property, not money.

Bitcoin enthusiasts from across the country gathered in Miami in January for the 2016 Bitcoin Hackathon.

Held at LAB Miami in the trendy Wynwoood neighborhood, the conference encouraged developing Smartphone apps and other software to expedite the use of bitcoins.

Photo credit: Gary Reyes, San Jose Mercury News




September 14, 2016

New FL study further shows benefits of juvenile civil citations over arrests



Miami-Dade County led the state last year in sending child offenders to diversion programs rather than arresting them for misdemeanor crimes, according to a new independent study released Wednesday.

But while Miami-Dade — like Florida, on the whole — is doing better to favor juvenile civil citations, the nonpartisan “Stepping Up 2016” study found other counties, including Hillsborough, have a long way to go in making better use of the alternative, which experts praise as a more effective and beneficial option to arrest.

Across Miami-Dade, 91 percent of eligible youth were given civil citations instead of arrests, the highest in the state for 2014-15, according to the study. Miami-Dade Police had a 99 percent usage rate for citations, and the school district had a 92 percent rate.

By comparison, in countywide numbers, Monroe used civil citations over arrests 80 percent of the time in eligible cases, Broward used them 68 percent of the time and Palm Beach used them almost 59 percent of the time, the study found.

In the Tampa Bay area, Pinellas County was second-best statewide with a usage rate of 82 percent — compared to 53 percent for Pasco and Hernando counties, 32 percent for Hillsborough and 24 percent for Citrus, the study found.

The report — the second annual study of its kind by The Children’s Campaign and several other state and national advocacy groups — builds upon previous findings that juvenile civil citations are preferable because youth are less likely to re-offend and because citation programs increase public safety and save potentially millions in taxpayer money.

Read more here.

Photo credit: Carl Juste / Miami Herald

August 22, 2016

Florida Supreme Court chief justice wants to bolster courthouse security

From the News Service of Florida:

Pointing to a need to "move ahead quickly on this issue," Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga on Monday announced the creation of a panel to study local courthouse security.

The Trial Courthouse Security Workgroup will look at issues such as evaluating security practices at courthouses, reviewing national courthouse security procedures and developing standards for training, according to the announcement.

"Every day in Florida's courthouses, people are living through heartbreaking dilemmas in both criminal and civil cases," Labarga said in a prepared statement. "We must do everything in our power to make sure that these buildings remain safe and secure and that the troubles we hope to resolve are not compounded by acts of violence in the very place reserved for justice. It is key to our freedoms as Americans."

The panel will be chaired by Margaret Steinbeck, a judge in Southwest Florida's 20th Judicial Circuit. It also will include the chief judges from eight judicial circuits, two attorneys and a staff member from the Office of State Courts Administrator.

July 07, 2016

Supreme Court is out for the summer, but rulings over death penalty and gaming are not

Florida supreme court.1_12061496_8colThe Florida Supreme Court released its final round of rulings for the summer Thursday and issued a rare clarification of its workers compensation decision of last month, but it also left unresolved two of the most controversial issues to come before the court this year: the death penalty and expansion of slot machines. 

The court postponed rulings on the constitutionality of the state's death penalty until its next term begins in late August, leaving the state's procedure and the 388 inmates on death row in limbo for potentially several more months.

The ruling is expected as part of a series of hearings the court held in May and June over cases challenging the state's death penalty law passed by lawmakers in March, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in in Hurst v. Florida that the state’s sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The court has stayed two executions in the wake of the Hurst ruling, heard arguments in more than a dozen death penalty cases, and has not yet unanswered whether longtime Death Row inmates should be afforded new sentencing hearings.

The court also heard arguments in June about whether a 2010 state gaming law allows counties to expand slot machines without legislative approval.

Both decisions could have wide-ranging ramifications and could potentially provoke criticism, controversy and unleash an election-year debate over two highly-charged issues.

Three of the seven sitting justices on the bench are up for a merit-retention vote in November -- Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston.

The death penalty questions before the court were spawned by the January U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared the state’s death sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, Florida jurors issued bare majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty.

The opinion evolved from a similar ruling in a 2002 case, Ring v. Arizona, which held that juries in that state should have the sole authority to decide on aggravating circumstances that made someone eligible for the death penalty. Alabama, Florida and Delaware are the only three states in the nation that do not require an unanimous jury to impose the death sentence and Florida officials believed the jury’s “advisory” role was sufficiently different to allow the court to differentiate Florida from the Arizona ruling. 

The decision forced the Legislature to rewrite its death-penalty sentencing law to require juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. The decision to impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors.

The fact that the court went on its summer recess without issuing an opinion, however, doesn't necessarily mean there won't be one to come before the court issues opinions again in late August. 

Martin McClain, a lawyer who has represented more than 250 defendants condemned to death and presented arguments before the court in June, said Thursday that in 2009 he was appealing the death sentence of an inmate issued its last opinions before it recessed for the summer one week, and the next week the opinion on his case was issued. 

"We have no idea what they will do,'' he said in an interview. He noted that there are two people on death row in which juries recommended a life sentence but a judge overrode it with a death sentence and the court may be taking its time to consider the impact of those cases.

"We now have a statute that says you can't get a death sentence if three or more people voted for life and yet we are still going to execute people who have a life recommendation? It's very difficult to determine what we're going to do. It makes sense to me the ourt wants to do it right ...It's also clear from the oral arguments that they are not in agreement."

On the gaming question, the  Florida Supreme Court heard argument from owners for Gretna Racing that the rural racetrack should be allowed to install slot machines because it has the approval of county voters. 

The case hinges on what appears to be conflicting legislative intent stemming from a 2009 law that modified the implementing law relating to slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties by allowing Hialeah Park to be eligible for a slots license.

The race track was not an operating pari-mutuel facility when voters approved the statewide constitutional amendment allowing slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward in 2003 but, because Hialeah was located in Miami-Dade, legislators agreed to revise the law to include it among the casinos that could operate Class III slots. 

The Legislature again changed the law in 2010 to allow counties to authorize slot machines. Gretna argues that the change applies to all counties but the state argues that the slots expansion is only allowed if it is first approved by the Legislature or the state Constitution.

If the court sides with Gretna, it could usher in the explosive growth of gambling across the state. At least five other counties — Brevard, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington  — have already voted to bring casinos to their stressed horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons. A statewide gaming expansion would also invalidate the $120 million-a-year gaming compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.



June 22, 2016

Report: Florida gets an 'F' for failing racial and gender diversity among court judges

Florida supreme court.1_12061496_8colFlorida is one of 26 states to receive a failing grade for its gender and racial diversity, according to the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, progressive legal organization. Florida ranked 29 out of 51 state court jurisdictions in the country because it's judiciaries are 45% less diverse than the state population.

The findings echo some of the research done by the Herald/Times in 2014, which found that Gov. Rick Scott appointed only nine black attorneys to judgeships in his first four years. 

The report, authored by law professors Tracey E. George and Albert H. Yoon, compiled the race, ethnicity, and gender of 10,000 sitting judges on state courts. It is  titled The Gavel Gap: Who Sits in Judgement at State Courts?

“The vast majority of Americans’ interactions with the judicial system, ranging from traffic violations to criminal proceedings, happen in state courts,” said George of Vanderbilt University. “When people do not see themselves represented in their community leadership, when the vast majority of judges cannot relate to the lived experience of those they serve—this is a problem. It creates a mistrust of judges, and propagates the mystery surrounding the court system. For the first time, we have the data we need to identify and address this serious problem.”

Photo: Tampa Bay Times


June 10, 2016

Whose cell phone was ringing in Florida Supreme Court? (Yes, his)

via @stevebousquet

Cell phones are strictly prohibited in the chambers of the Florida Supreme Court. As visitors pass through a security kiosk, they must surrender their phones until they leave. No exceptions. But during oral arguments Thursday, a cell phone began chirping while Justice Barbara Pariente was speaking. Chirp, chirp, chirp.

The ringing sound was loud and clear, so it had to be very close to Pariente's microphone. The justice who sits directly to Pariente's left is Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, and as the court called a recess, the chief accepted responsibility for the unwelcome noise.

"I never bring the phone to court -- never," Labarga was heard saying on an open microphone. "I bring it one day and this happens."

June 09, 2016

Marco Rubio says 'concerns' are why he halted South Florida judge's nomination

After months of being vague, Marco Rubio told an Orlando TV station this week exactly why he was blocking the nomination of a South Florida judge to the federal bench.

Politico obtained a portion of an unaired interview that Rubio gave with WFTV in Orlando on Monday.

In it -- Politico reported -- Rubio said he had "concerns" that Miami lawyer Mary Barzee Flores gave, what Politico described as, "conflicting answers" to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and the Florida Judicial Nominating Commission about her previous support for a left-leaning political group, EMILY's List. Rubio was also reportedly troubled that Barzee Flores wasn't candid about her involvement in a 2001 criminal case that resulted in claims of ineffective counsel.

Four years ago, a federal judge found Barzee Flores and then-fellow Miami federal public defender Reuben Camper Cahn had "prejudiced" the case of a client, Yuby Ramirez, when they gave bad advice for her to reject plea deals from prosecutors. The judge threw out Ramirez's life sentence.

President Barack Obama nominated Barzee Flores, a former state circuit court judge, more than a year ago for a vacancy on South Florida's federal bench. Rubio's delay in advancing her nomination in the U.S. Senate has sparked criticism of partisanship.

Rubio told the Miami Herald last week that Barzee Flores was the "wrong person" for the federal appointment but didn't offer specifics.

Read Politico's full story here.

June 02, 2016

Florida's cost for same-sex marriage court fight: Nearly $500K

From Dara Kam at The News Service of Florida:

Florida taxpayers are on the hook for almost $500,000 in fees to lawyers who successfully challenged the state's prohibition against same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, who initially balked at paying the legal fees, has agreed to pay $280,000 to Jacksonville lawyers William Sheppard, Betsy White and Sam Jacobson, who represented two same-sex couples, according to documents filed in federal court on Wednesday.

Bondi's office last month agreed to pay $213,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which represented eight same-sex couples who were married in other states.

The settlements came after U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in April that the lawyers in the consolidated cases were entitled to the fees, and nearly two years after Hinkle first ruled that Florida's voter-approved same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional.

Hinkle put a stay on his August 2014 constitutional decision until January 2015, when same-sex marriages began in Florida.

A battle over the legal fees began last summer, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry. The Supreme Court ruling came in a case involving other states, but it cemented Hinkle's ruling that Florida's ban was unconstitutional.

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