October 02, 2017

Lawsuit filed in dispute over HB 7069, escalating political war

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@ByKristenMClark

The legal war has officially begun over a highly controversial, charter school-friendly education law Republican state lawmakers pushed through last spring.

Palm Beach County School Board members filed a lawsuit this week challenging the constitutionality of one part of House Bill 7069. Another, potentially more far-reaching lawsuit with the backing of at least 14 other school districts — including Miami-Dade and Broward counties — is still expected in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, charter school advocates are rallying their forces, too — vowing to fight in defense of HB 7069 in the courtroom and also on the political battlefield.

Among the weapons they’re preparing: A coordinated public relations campaign highlighting school districts’ spending, and fielding — and funding — challengers to school board members statewide who face re-election in 2018 and who have been critical of HB 7069.

“We’re developing a plan and we’re going to be very aggressive,” said Ralph Arza, a former Miami-Dade Republican lawmaker who is now the government affairs director for the Florida Charter School Alliance.

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo.

September 25, 2017

'Friends of NRA' charity fundraiser featured judges as table sponsors

via @stevebousquet TAET5GFNJFCUBJBV5AKU2O2GZA

Two judges who serve on Florida’s First District Court of Appeal were table sponsors at a recent “Friends of NRA” charity fundraiser and were both listed by the title “Judge” in the event’s program, under the heading of “sponsors and supporters.”

Judges Clay Roberts and Kemmerly Thomas both confirmed they bought tables for the Sept. 15 event in Tallahassee. Both also said they asked the NRA that they be listed in the program by name only, not by title, and that they did not see the program beforehand.

Contributions to the Sept. 15 event in Tallahassee support The NRA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity. The program said the NRA Foundation supports initiatives, such as school safety, gun accident prevention and crime victim awareness. Two potential Republican opponents for governor, Richard Corcoran and Adam Putnam, were platinum sponsors. (Putnam is an announced candidate for governor, while Corcoran is still considering.)

Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct states that judges “shall not use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fundraising or membership solicitation.”

Continue reading "'Friends of NRA' charity fundraiser featured judges as table sponsors" »

September 18, 2017

Bonuses based on teacher test scores violate civil rights, lawsuit alleges

Dept of Education

A state program that awards bonuses to top-rated teachers based on their own SAT and ACT scores from high school violates federal and state civil rights laws against employment discrimination, argues a potential class-action lawsuit filed this week by Florida’s largest teachers union and seven classroom teachers from South Florida.

The Best and Brightest program — first enacted in 2015 and now in its third year — continues to be envisioned by Florida House Republicans as an innovative means to recruit and retain the best teachers in the state’s public schools.

But it’s been a subject of ongoing controversy because the program relies on teachers’ own test scores — sometimes decades old and unavailable — which has no proven correlation to teacher effectiveness.

The Florida Education Association is now asking a federal judge to step in and declare the program illegal and discriminatory against teachers who are older and who are non-white.

The FEA first made the accusation two years ago through a complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — an avenue the union said Friday it had to exhaust before it was recently given federal authorization to file a lawsuit.

“The SAT/ACT score requirement has an illegal disparate impact on teachers based on their age and on teachers based on their black and Hispanic race,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys, John Davis and Kent Spriggs, argued in the 58-page lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee. “The SAT/ACT score requirement is not required by business necessity and is not related to job performance.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Florida Department of Education [Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times]

September 06, 2017

Labarga orders all state courts to be closed Friday

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@ByKristenMClark

State courts throughout Florida will be closed Friday as Hurricane Irma nears the state.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga signed an administrative order Wednesday — citing the safety of court visitors, staff and judges.

Labarga’s order affects all 20 judicial circuits and five district courts of appeal statewide, although courts in South Florida counties had already planned to be closed.

RELATED: “Here’s what’s closed, canceled or postponed because of Hurricane Irma”

His order allows for the extension of court time limits that can’t be met because of the hurricane and of deadlines for certain individual cases. Judges can make exceptions “for emergency matters” and have “the authority and responsibility” to close courts and offices as needed, Labarga said.

August 31, 2017

Supreme Court: Gov. Scott did 'not abuse his broad discretion' in death-penalty dispute

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@ByKristenMClark

Gov. Rick Scott was within his executive authority in reassigning more than two dozen potential death penalty cases away from an Orlando state attorney who declared she wouldn’t pursue the punishment for any case prosecuted in her district, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 5-2 ruling, justices said Aramis Ayala’s “blanket” opposition to seeking the death penalty negates her argument of having exercised prosecutorial discretion.

Writing for the majority, Justice C. Alan Lawson — a conservative judge whom Scott appointed to the Supreme Court in December — said Scott, as governor, has leeway in his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed,” and “the governor has not abused his broad discretion in reassigning the cases at issue” to Brad King, a state attorney in Ocala.

Full story here.

Photo credit: AP

July 28, 2017

Florida's legal losses up to $19M and counting under Gov. Rick Scott

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From Gary Fineout of the Associated Press:

Florida's price tag for losing legal battles — which has included courtroom fights over drug testing, voting rights and gay marriage — continues to grow under Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott recently agreed to pay $1.1 million to cover the legal bills of physicians and medical organizations in their successful challenge of a law that restricted doctors' ability to talk to patients about guns. The law had been pushed through the Florida Legislature at the urging of the National Rifle Association.

In early July, the state also agreed to a $2 million payment that will go to lawyers who sued on behalf of disabled inmates.

A review of records by The Associated Press shows that since Scott took office in 2011 the state has paid at least $19 million to cover expenses and fees for lawyers who have sued the state. Many of those lawsuits took aim at policies put in place by Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Scott administration has defended the legal expenses in the past, saying the governor will "vigorously defend" Florida's laws.

In February a federal appeals court ruled that Florida doctors can talk to patients about gun safety, declaring a law aimed at restricting such discussions a violation of the First Amendment's right to free speech. The state did not appeal the decision and in late June reached a settlement to pay $1.1 million for attorney fees and costs.

One of the firms involved in the lawsuit — Ropes & Gray — announced it would donate $100,000 of its fee award to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

"This award is a message to states to think twice before enacting or defending laws that put lives at risk just to boost the gun industry's bottom line," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, in a statement.

John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott, defended the state's fight over the law. He said the governor was a "strong supporter" of the 2nd Amendment and that he signed the bill "after it was approved by a large, bipartisan majority in the Florida Legislature."

Earlier this month, the state agreed to pay $2 million to cover the fees and costs for groups that sued the state in 2016 over its treatment of inmates with hearing, vision and mobility disabilities.

Randall Berg with the Florida Justice Institute said the money will go to reimbursing the institute, Disability Rights Florida, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and the well-known personal injury law firm Morgan & Morgan. John Morgan is a frequent Democratic donor and has been speculating about running for governor next year.

In the last six years, the state has agreed to pay attorney fees of lawyers who have sued the state over everything from employee discrimination to drug testing of welfare recipients.

The total includes $12 million paid to attorneys who represented pediatricians in a more than 10-year legal battle over whether Florida violated federal mandates by failing to deliver critical health services to 2 million children on Medicaid.

The state also paid more than $800,000 to lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union and nearly $513,000 to lawyers who defeated a state law targeting businesses doing business in Cuba.

An AP review found that between 2011 and early 2017 that Florida had spent more than $237 million on outside lawyers hired to defend the state.

July 24, 2017

Florida taxpayers will shoulder $1.1M in legal fees in state's defense of 'Docs vs. Glocks'

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From Jim Saunders at the News Service of Florida:

Florida will pay $1.1 million in legal fees to attorneys who challenged a controversial state law that sought to prevent doctors from asking patients about guns, a group representing opponents said Monday.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence announced the legal-fees agreement more than five months after a federal appeals court sided with doctors and medical groups in striking down key parts of the 2011 law --- which became known as the “docs vs. glocks” law. The state did not appeal the Feb. 16decision by the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A copy of the legal-fees agreement had not been posted in an online court file Monday morning. But documents indicate the state and the law's opponents had been in mediation on the fees.

The law, which was backed by groups such as the National Rifle Association, included a series of restrictions on doctors and health providers. For example, it sought to prevent physicians from entering information about gun ownership into medical records if the physicians knew the information was not "relevant" to patients' medical care or safety or to the safety of other people.

Also, the law said doctors should refrain from asking about gun ownership by patients or family members unless the doctors believed in "good faith" that the information was relevant to medical care or safety. Also, the law sought to prevent doctors from discriminating against patients or "harassing" them because of owning firearms.

Opponents argued, in part, that the law violated free-speech rights. The full appeals court found that the record-keeping, inquiry and anti-harassment parts of the law were unconstitutional, but upheld the portion of the law that bars doctors from discriminating against patients who have guns.

“Legislators across the country should learn from Florida's example that if you side with the corporate gun lobby instead of your constituents, you endanger the safety of children and families, impinge upon First Amendment rights of doctors, and force taxpayers to pay millions to unsuccessfully defend unconstitutional laws,” Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center's Legal Action Project and an attorney in the case, said in a prepared statement Monday. “Thankfully, in this case justice prevailed and the court recognized that doctors have a First Amendment right to tell the truth about guns, and the risks they can pose to children and families.”

When asked for comment Monday about the legal fees, John Tupps, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, said in an email that Scott signed the 2011 law after it “was approved by a large, bipartisan majority in the Florida Legislature.”

“Governor Scott is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” Tupps said. “Much of this law was either never challenged or upheld in court. This (legal fees) settlement is in accordance with Florida law and a recommendation from the Department of Financial Services.”

The challenge to the law was filed in June 2011 and played out over nearly six years. A U.S. District Court judge blocked the law from taking effect, but a three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld the law in three rulings before the full appeals court agreed to take up the case.

Supporters of the law said it was necessary to prevent doctors, such as pediatricians, from harassing and discriminating against patients and parents about gun ownership. The also described the law, formally known as the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act, as a Second Amendment issue.

But Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, an attorney with the firm Ropes & Gray, who argued the case for the plaintiffs, said in a prepared statement Monday that the case allows doctors to “go back to giving their best advice to patients when it comes to gun safety.”

“From day one in bringing this case, our commitment has been to protect doctors' First Amendment rights to ensure the safety of individuals, families and communities in Florida,” Hallward-Driemeier said. “The successful resolution of the litigation and subsequent fees and costs award are both critical to furthering that goal.”

July 19, 2017

Judge: State gets 60 more days to prove need for 24-hour abortion waiting period

Julia kaye

@ByKristenMClark

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office has 60 more days to gather evidence and testimony to defend a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for abortions, which lawmakers enacted in 2015 but which has been blocked from taking effect amid a two-year legal battle.

In granting the state extra time, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis on Wednesday also chided Deputy Solicitor General Denise Harle for not already being prepared to make her case.

It’s been five months since the Florida Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision that stopped the waiting period from going into effect while the lawsuit over constitutionality went ahead.

“I’m very skeptical in terms of the state’s suggestion that they need more time,” Lewis said during an hourlong hearing in Tallahassee. “If I were in your shoes, I’d be ready a long time ago to answer what the challenges were.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Julia Kaye, attorney for the ACLU. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times

July 18, 2017

Appeals court considers lawsuit over Florida's public education system

1st dca - June 7  2016

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida Constitution requires the state to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools” — but is that general standard something that can be measured?

That’s what an appeals court in Tallahassee will decide in the latest round of a long-standing battle over whether the Legislature, state Board of Education and the Florida Department of Education are fulfilling their constitutional obligations for 2.8 million children in the state’s public schools.

After a five-week trial last year, a Leon County Circuit Court judge tossed out the lawsuit that was filed in 2009. While the plaintiffs — led by two advocacy organizations, Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now — argued the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty, Judge George S. Reynolds III found they hadn’t met the burden to prove that was the case.

Now the First District Court of Appeal will decide whether Reynolds erred in that ruling. Central to that decision is whether the constitutional standard — adopted by voters in the late 1990s — is one that can be definitively measured.

Focused on that theme, the three-judge appeals panel peppered attorneys for the state and for the plaintiffs with questions during an hourlong hearing Tuesday.

Read more here.

July 07, 2017

Lawsuit alleges Florida's colleges, universities owed $1B from state

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via @harrisalexc

In the 1970s, Florida joined a wave of states that encouraged private philanthropy to public universities by matching donations. Following the housing market crash and economic downturn, the Legislature put the matching rules on hold “temporarily” in 2011.

Temporarily has turned into six years. Now, a state lawsuit has been filed against lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott to pay out the money — all $1 billion of it. That’s $600 million in backlogged matches and the rest in estimated potential donations if the automatic match is reinstated.

Grace Mead, a Miami attorney who filed the class-action lawsuit under the name of two recent University of Florida graduates, argues that the Legislature’s continued hold on donations matches violates Florida’s constitution and harms students’ education. The two students named as lead plaintiffs are Alexis Geffin, a Wisconsin sports reporter, and her brother Ryan Geffin, an incoming medical student at Florida International University.

“We’re not seeking damages,” Mead said, “we’re seeking allocation of funds.”

 

Full story here.