February 27, 2015

Judge rules taxpayers should cover legal bills for Ray Sansom

From our friends at the Associated Press:

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida judge says taxpayers should pay the legal fees of disgraced former House Speaker Ray Sansom.

Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey said Friday that she would side with Sansom.

Dempsey didn't say exactly how much she would award Sansom. He sued the state to recover nearly $1 million stemming from his successful defense of corruption charges.

Sansom was accused of scheming to add $6 million to the state budget for an airplane hangar that would ultimately benefit a political supporter. The charges were dropped by prosecutors after a judge blocked the testimony of a key witness.

His lawyers argued the state should pay his fees because the charges were connected to his actions as a legislator.

In a surprise move Sansom testified on Friday and defended his actions. 

February 23, 2015

Appeals court rejects challenge to blind trust law

From our friends at the News Service of Florida:

An appeals court Monday tossed out a constitutional challenge to a 2013 law that allows public officials to put their assets into blind trusts, pointing to the “speculative nature” of the case.

Jim Apthorp, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Reubin Askew, filed the challenge last year alleging that the blind-trust law violated a constitutional requirement that officials fully disclose their financial interests.

But a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal found that Apthorp’s case “wholly failed to allege a bona fide, actual, present practical need for a declaration that the qualified blind trust statute is unconstitutional.” In part, it said Apthorp did not allege any public official or candidate had used a blind trust in the most-recent financial disclosures.

“This case presents an important constitutional question, namely whether a public officer who includes a qualified blind trust authorized under (the section of state law) in any financial disclosure required by law complies with the requirement for full and public disclosure found in (the state Constitution),’’ said the ruling, written by Judge Lori Rowe and joined by judges Timothy Osterhaus and Brad Thomas. “However, notwithstanding the substantial interest in this case from the bench and bar, we are constrained to leave for another day the resolution of this constitutional question because this case lacks a justiciable controversy.”

More here.

April 30, 2014

House approves constitutional amendment to let next gov pack the court

Florida legislators took the final step to put an amendment on the November ballot Wednesday that asks voters to decide whether to give Florida’s governor new powers to make prospective appointments to the state Supreme Court.

The proposed constitutional amendment, SJR 1188, was approved by a 74-45 partisan vote in the Florida House following its Senate passage. The amendment will be the third one on the ballot and must be approved by at least 60 percent of voters on Election Day to become law.

Republicans defended the proposal and Democrats opposed it since it means that the next governor will have the power to pick three of the seven justices because of a fluke of timing that requires three of them to retire on the same day the next governor’s term ends, on Jan. 8, 2019. Unlike every recent election year in the last decade, this is the first time legislators have placed only one amendment on the ballot.

Justices are required to retire at age 70, but can continue to serve on the bench until the end of their six-year term. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — the court’s liberal wing — will all turn 70 some time during the next governor’s term, and their six-year terms will all end on the same day the new governor is inaugurated.

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March 13, 2014

Florida Supreme Court throws out 2003 damage caps, centerpiece of Bush reforms

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the centerpiece of the 2003 medical malpractice overhaul law, blasting the Legislature for creating an “alleged medical malpractice crisis” and concluding that the cap on wrongful death non-economic damages violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause.

The 5-2 ruling, written by Justice R. Fred Lewis, suggested that legislators created a crisis to push through the caps on damages in medical liability lawsuits which “has the effect of saving a modest amount for many by imposing devastating costs on a few.”

The caps limited payments for pain and suffering to $500,000 or $1 million, depending on the circumstances and the number of people involved. Lewis concluded the law unconstitutionally discriminates against “those who are most grievously injured, those who sustain the greatest damage and loss, and multiple claimants.’’

The decision will effectively remove the cap on so-called “non-economic” damages when someone dies because of medical malpractice. Victims whose cases were resolved between the time the law took effect in late 2003 and today, however, will have no recourse. The Florida Justice Association estimates there are more than 700 medical malpractice cases pending statewide.

“This is a monumental decision,’’ said Ken Sobel, a Fort Lauderdale trial attorney and past chairman of the FJA’s Medical Malpractice Bar. “It is being resoundingly applauded by our side of the bar, and quietly applauded by the defense bar.” Story here.

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Florida sued again -- in federal court -- over same-sex couples ban


Eight same-sex Florida couples who legally married elsewhere in the United States have gone to federal court to demand the Sunshine State recognize their unions.

The suit, filed in Tallahassee late Wednesday by the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida and the Podhurst Orseck law firm of Miami, challenges “Florida’s refusal to recognize” the marriages of eight same-sex couples. Those 16 defendants are joined by SAVE, South Florida’s leading LGBT-rights group.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Bondi, Surgeon General and Health Secretary John Armstrong and Department of Management Services Secretary Craig Nichols as defendants. The plaintiffs held a news conference Thursday morning to announce details of the lawsuit.

“Our historic victory in last year’s Supreme Court case striking down (the federal Defense of Marriage Act) means that many loving and committed Floridians have marriages that are recognized by the federal government,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “Sadly, Florida refuses to recognize those marriages, often at significant cost to their families. The time has come for Florida to end its discrimination against same sex couples, including those whose marriages are legally recognized elsewhere in our country and by the federal government.” Story here.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/03/13/3992235/eight-gay-couples-sue-florida.html#storylink=cpy

March 11, 2014

Bill to take politics out of Supreme Court appointment gets dwarfed by -- politics

A bill portrayed as an attempt to keep politics out of judicial appointments dissolved into a tense political dispute Tuesday as the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted out a constitutional amendment to give the next governor the ability to stack the court -- against the wishes of Democrats. 

The proposal by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon and chairman of the committee, on its surface looks like a simple attempt to clarify Florida law that now raises questions about whether an outgoing governor or his incoming successor is entitled to make the appointments to the Florida Supreme Court when the vacancy occurs on inauguration day.

But, because of a coincidence of timing, the terms of three of the seven sitting justices are expected to expire at the same time as the term of the next governor. As a result, the proposed amendment effectively allows the governor elected in 2014 to stack the court as one of the final acts of his four-year term -- potentially leaving a legacy that could last generations.

"Good governance transcends any personality or ideology,'' said Lee, who is a supporter of Gov. Rick Scott. "If we try to do this in 2016, there will be a whole lot of discussion about who this benefits and who this doeen't. I think this is the purest time to deal with it." 

But who wins the election in November may determine when the justices decide to retire. If the justices agree with the judicial philosophy of the sitting governor, they could retire early, and give the governor clear authority to appoint their successors. If they disagree with the governor's philosophy, they could wait until the end of the next governor's term and leave open the door for a successor governor to pick the replacement. 

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March 07, 2014

Proposal would let winner of governor's race pack the Supreme Court

Retiring JusticesFlorida’s governor would have new powers to pack the state’s Supreme Court under a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow him to make prospective appointments to the bench even if a vacancy occurs the day the governor is leaving office.

Under the proposal by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the next governor could appoint the successors to three justices of the Florida Supreme Court who would have to retire on the same day the governor’s term ends, on Jan. 8, 2019. Justices are required to retire at age 70, but can continue to serve on the bench until the end of their six-year term.

Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — the court’s liberal wing — will all turn 70 some time during the next governor’s term, and their six-year terms will all end on the same day as the a new governor is inaugurated.

The state constitution is unclear about whether the incoming or outgoing governor should make the appointment when the vacancy occurs on inauguration day. The proposal is designed to put some certainty into the law by giving governors a “prospective appointment” as part of the state’s merit selection system used for appellate courts.

If voters approve Lee’s amendment in November, Gov. Rick Scott, if reelected, or his successor will have the power to appoint a majority of the seven-member court, a legacy that could last for decades.

Here’s how it would work: Story here. 

Photo: Retiring justices, clockwise: Peggy Quince, Barbara Pariente, James E.C. Perry, R. Fred Lewis


March 06, 2014

Court says state law prevents Tampa immigrant from being admitted to Florida Bar

In a long-anticipated decision, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Tampa immigrant and FSU law school graduate Jose Godinez-Samperio cannot be admitted to the Florida Bar.

But the court called on the Florida Legislature to intervene quickly to correct what it called an "injustice." When a similar set of circumstances occurred in California, that state's Legislature changed the law to allow non-citizens to become members of the Bar.

"The Florida Legislature is in the unique position to act on this integral policy question and remedy the inequities that the unfortunate decision of this Court will bring to bear," the justices wrote.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners had asked the state's high court for an advisory opinion on the question. The court concluded that an immigrant's legal status is determined solely by federal law, and a 1996 federal law prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving certain state "public benefits," including a professional license — in this case, to practice law — issued by an agency that receives state money, in this case, the Florida Supreme Court.

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January 30, 2014

Florida Supreme Court's next chief justice is Jorge Labarga, first Cuban-American to hold post

From our friends at the Associated Press:

Justice Jorge Labarga will be the Florida Supreme Court's next leader.

The seven-member court on Wednesday elected 61-year-old Labarga to a two-year term beginning July 1. He will succeed Chief Justice Ricky Polstonwho will remain on the bench.

Labarga becomes the first Cuban-American to hold the post. The chief justice serves as the chief administrative officer for the state courts system.

His election followed a tradition of electing the next senior justice who hasn't yet held the position.

Labarga was first appointed to the high court in 2009 by former Gov. Charlie Crist. He will become the court's 56th chief.

Labarga is from West Palm Beach and he served as a trial court judge and then briefly as an appeals judge before he was appointed to the Supreme Court. 

December 19, 2013

Florida Supreme Court approves new execution drug

From the Associated Press: 

The Florida Supreme Court is giving its approval for the state's new lethal injection procedure and the execution of a man who killed a prison guard while on death row can proceed.

The court ruled Thursday that a new drug used to render condemned prisoners unconscious works effectively.

Askari Abdullah Muhammad, formerly known as Thomas Knight, was scheduled for execution Dec. 3. The court delayed the execution and ordered hearings on a claim that the sedative midazolam hydrochloride doesn't prevent pain after being administered.

The 62-year-old Knight has been on death row for nearly 40 years. He was convicted of fatally stabbing Corrections Officer Richard Burke with the sharpened end of a spoon in 1980.

Knight was originally condemned for the 1974 murders of Sidney and Lillian Gans of Miami Beach.