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.

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

June 01, 2016

Florida's courtroom cameras get attention as Congress studies whether to allow them in SCOTUS

For Floridians, having access to live coverage of oral arguments before the state's highest court is nothing new -- the court has allowed cameras in the courtroom since 1979 and live coverage since 1997.

But across the nation, and the world, the idea is still gaining traction and Florida is a model, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, released on Tuesday.

The GAO report, intended to help Congress as it studies the possibility of similar broadcasts at the U.S. Supreme Court, includes detailed information about the Florida Supreme Court’s program to broadcast all of its oral arguments. According to the Florida Supreme Court, every oral argument "has been broadcast on the Web, on cable television, and via satellite since that program began in 1997. Videos also are archived for access at any time."

The GAO report cites the cooperative relationship the court has with the taxpayer-funded Florida Channel and notes that "Florida case law establishes a presumption that coverage is allowed and requires judges to make an on-the-record finding to prohibit coverage."

The report cites how the program has been used to expand public understanding of the court system, and cites a Florida court official who stated that "high-profile, controversial cases can be misunderstood by the public and broadcasting oral arguments in their entirety can help dispel misconceptions about the case and how the court operates."

Notably, the court's live broadcast of oral arguments in the 2000 Bush v. Gore presidential election case, "helped educate the public about the judicial system and noted that it was beneficial for the public to be able to see the arguments and draw their own conclusions,'' the report said.

“It is flattering that the U.S. Congress turns to the Florida Supreme Court as it looks at ways of increasing public access to the highest court in the nation,'' ” said Chief Justice Jorge Labarga in a statement. “Considering the other courts they reviewed, it shows that we have set a world-class example.”

Cameras were permitted into Florida trial court proceedings on a limited basis starting in 1975 and, after four years of study, the court adopted its permanent rule in 1979 allowing cameras into trial and appeals court proceedings statewide.

May 11, 2016

Attorneys debate whether groups can sue over school voucher program

@ByKristenMClark

A three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal on Tuesday grilled attorneys for the state and for Florida’s largest teachers union, as the union argued why it should have its day in court to challenge a voucher-like education program the Legislature approved 15 years ago.

There was no immediate ruling from the judges following the 50-minute hearing.

The judges are considering two primary questions at this stage in the lawsuit: whether the union and its allies have standing to sue the state over the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and whether the union is articulating a specific harm the program does to public schools.

May 09, 2016

Appeals court to consider teachers' lawsuit over tax-credit scholarships

@ByKristenMClark

A panel of appeals court judges will hear oral arguments on Tuesday in the next phase of a high-profile and controversial lawsuit challenging a voucher-like scholarship program that helps poor children attend private school in Florida.

But the merits of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program won’t be argued just yet.

First to be resolved is whether the state’s largest teachers union and other plaintiffs even have the right to make their case that it’s unconstitutional.

The Florida Education Association and its allies want the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee to overturn a Leon County judge’s ruling from almost a year ago that tossed the lawsuit. Circuit Judge George Reynolds III ruled that the plaintiffs didn’t have legal standing to bring the case.

The FEA appealed last summer because it wants its day in court — despite mounting public pressure from scholarship supporters who want the union to “drop the suit.”

Read more here.

April 28, 2016

Three Floridians among Obama nominees to federal district bench

@jamesmartinrose

President Barack Obama on Thursday nominated U.S. magistrate judges in Jacksonville and Ocala and a prominent Tampa lawyer for federal district court seats, adding their names to a backlog of dozens of judicial picks the Republican-controlled Senate has failed to confirm.

Obama named Magistrate Judge Patricia D. Barksdale of Jacksonville and Tampa white-collar defense attorney William F. Jung to the Middle District of Florida, and he chose Magistrate Judge Philip R. Lammens for the Northern District of Florida.

"There is a judicial emergency in the Middle District of Florida right now," Sen. Bill Nelson said. "Sen. Rubio and I have conferred on these three nominees, and even in this highly partisan environment, I'm hopeful that we can get them approved quickly."

Aides to Rubio confirmed that the two senators had worked together in recommending the Florida nominees to Obama.

Rubio, however, declined to say whether he would push for his Senate Republican colleagues to confirm them. Republicans are refusing to hold hearings or to vote on Obama's nomination last month of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

With 85 federal district seats unfilled nationwide, Florida has three of 28 vacancies deemed "emergency" by the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy-making body for federal courts overseen by the Supreme Court.

The emergency designation is based on a combination of the length of vacancy and how many cases are pending before a court.

Both seats that Obama moved to fill Thursday for the Middle District of Florida are among the 28 emergency vacancies, with one seat empty since June 30, 2015, and the second seat unfilled since August 1 of last year.

The Middle District of Florida had 9,401 cases in 2015, which is considered a heavy load. It stretches from south of Naples on the Gulf Coast to the Georgia border and includes Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando.

Obama also nominated five other district judges to seats in Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and the District of Columbia.

"Throughout their careers, these nominees have displayed unwavering commitment to justice and integrity," Obama said of his eight choices for judicial promotion. "Their records are distinguished and impressive, and I am confident that they will serve the American people well from the United States District Court bench."

The Senate on April 11 unanimously confirmed Waverly Crenshaw Jr., an African-American lawyer from Nashville, Tenn., to a federal district judgeship.

The Senate confirmed just 17 of Obama's judicial nominees last year, the fewest since 1960.

Before becoming a U.S. magistrate judge in 2012, Lammens was a federal prosecutor in Jacksonville, the city's No. 2 attorney and a civil trial lawyer in the torts division of the U.S. Justice Department. He earned his law and undergraduate degrees from the University of Florida.

A U.S. magistrate judge since 2013, Barksdale also previously worked as a federal prosecutor in Jacksonville. She, too, has undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida.

Jung is a founding partner of the Jung & Sisco law firm in Ocala, specializing in white-collar criminal defense. He was a federal prosecutor in Miami in the late 1980s and clerked before that for then-Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist. Jung received his law degree from the University of Illinois and his undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University