April 18, 2016

Florida Supreme Court chief justice to attend White House forum

@ByKristenMClark

Jorge-Labarga-2015Jorge Labarga, the chief justice of Florida's Supreme Court, is participating at an event at the White House on Tuesday to promote ways to help low-income Americans seek justice through the court system.

Labarga is one of six state chief justices invited, the Florida Supreme Court said in a news release this morning.

Speakers at the event include U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston and John Levi, the chairman of the Legal Services Corp., which is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans and a co-sponsor of the non-partisan forum. After the forum, a reception at the U.S. Supreme Court will include remarks by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

It's the second year that Labarga has participated.

“I am eager to once again bring Florida’s perspective to this critically important national conversation,” Labarga said in a statement. “And I look forward to hearing about initiatives and innovations elsewhere that we may very well want to explore here in Florida.”

Access to civil justice has been one of Labarga's top priorities as head of Florida's judicial branch. In 2014, he created the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice -- which is researching ways to bring down barriers that keep poor people from seeking the help of the courts in matters such as child custody and landlord-tenant disputes.

“The lack of meaningful access to civil justice is so critically urgent that I believe it can be fairly described as a crisis," Labarga said.

He praised attorneys and legal groups that work to help people who can't afford a lawyer, but he said, "the simple truth is that the gaps in access to civil justice are bigger than the legal community. We are grappling with a societal problem. And it needs a societal answer.”

The forum will be live-streamed at https://www.whitehouse.gov/live.

April 15, 2016

Jacksonville Rep. Reggie Fullwood indicted on federal charges

HousePhotoOriginal5880@ByKristenMClark

A Democratic state representative from Jacksonville has been indicted on more than a dozen federal wire fraud and tax charges and is accused of embezzling campaign funds for personal expenses, ranging from restaurants to jewelry stores.

U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III announced the charges today against Reggie Fullwood -- a three-term state representative who, this past session, was the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.

Fullwood, 41, faces 10 counts of wire fraud and four counts of failure to file federal income tax returns. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison for each wire fraud offense, and a year of imprisonment for each failure to file charge.

Fullwood turned himself into federal authorities on Friday and pleaded not guilty during an initial court appearance in Florida’s Middle District of U.S. District Court in Jacksonville. It lasted 20 minutes.

He was released under a $10,000 bond that he has to pay only if he fails to appear at future hearings, court records show. He was also required to surrender his passport to his attorney.

Continue reading "Jacksonville Rep. Reggie Fullwood indicted on federal charges" »

April 14, 2016

FL Supreme Court rules agencies must pay attorneys fees when violating public records law

From Jim Saunders at The News Service of Florida:

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday issued a broadly worded ruling that made clear public agencies are liable for paying attorney's fees if they violate the state's open-records law.

The 5-2 ruling dealt with cases in which people successfully sue agencies for failing to comply with the records law. Justices rejected arguments that agencies should be shielded from paying plaintiffs' legal fees if public-records requests are handled in "good faith."

"In accordance with case law liberally construing the Public Records Act in favor of open access to public records, the reasonable statutory construction of the attorney's fee provision, and the letter and spirit of the constitutional right to inspect or copy public records, we hold that a prevailing party is entitled to statutory attorney's fees under the Public Records Act when the trial court finds that the public agency violated a provision of the Public Records Act in failing to permit a public record to be inspected or copied,'' said the majority opinion, written by Justice Barbara Pariente and joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry. "There is no additional requirement, before awarding attorney's fees under the Public Records Act, that the trial court find that the public agency did not act in good faith, acted in bad faith, or acted unreasonably."

Continue reading "FL Supreme Court rules agencies must pay attorneys fees when violating public records law" »

April 08, 2016

Trial challenging Florida's education framework wraps up in Tallahassee

Capture

@ByKristenMClark

A four-week trial challenging Florida’s public entire education system and its hallmark components — such as standardized testing, school grades and “school choice” options, like charter schools — concluded Friday.

Numerous witnesses, including state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, testified in Leon County Circuit Court during the trial, which began in mid-March. Judge George Reynolds III isn’t expected to rule in the case for several weeks, as attorneys for both the state and Citizens for Strong Schools have until April 25 to file final written arguments in the case.

Citizens for Strong Schools filed the lawsuit in 2009. The group wants Reynolds to declare that the Florida Department of Education — and by extension, the Florida Legislature — has failed to fulfill its constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” to provide a “high quality” education for all public school students, particularly low-income and minority students.

“This is not an insignificant matter,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Jodi Siegel said during Friday’s closing arguments.

Continue reading "Trial challenging Florida's education framework wraps up in Tallahassee" »

NRA seeks to weigh in on open-carry case before Florida Supreme Court

@ByKristenMClark

UPDATE: 2:55 p.m. -- The Florida Supreme Court this afternoon granted the NRA's request to file an amicus brief in the case.

ORIGINAL STORY: 1:53 p.m. --

The National Rifle Association has filed a motion in the Florida Supreme Court to appear as a "friend of the court" on behalf of a man challenging Florida's law banning the open-carrying of handguns.

The court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in June in the lawsuit filed by Dale Norman, who was arrested and charged with open-carrying in 2012 in St. Lucie County. He was later found guilty of a misdemeanor and sued to challenge the state law.

The 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that regulating the open-carrying of firearms does not violate the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The state's top court will consider Norman's appeal this summer.

In its motion, the National Rifle Association said it has an interest in the case on behalf of its 300,000 members in Florida.

"A decision holding that open and peaceful bearing of arms is not constitutionally protected conduct would expose these NRA members to legal jeopardy and defense costs," wrote the NRA's Tallahassee-based attorney, Jason Gonzalez.

Gonzalez notes that the NRA was "deeply involved" in crafting legislation this past session that would have allowed 1.5 million people with concealed weapons in Florida to openly carry handguns.

The legislation -- sponsored by father-son duo Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- passed the House but stalled in the Senate. Judiciary Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up, calling the measure unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

The NRA's lobbyist, Marion Hammer, said the legislation was necessary to stop what she called the unwarranted prosecution of gun-owners who openly carried by accident, such as when their shirt briefly rode up or when a gun became visible inside a woman's purse. (In Norman's case, he had been carrying his gun in a holster on his hip while walking down a street in Fort Pierce when someone alerted 911.)

Democratic lawmakers in the House sought provisions to ease those concerns about inadvertent open-carry, but Republicans rejected adding them to the proposed bill. Hammer has said the only solution is to allow open carry altogether.

The Florida Supreme Court in January granted "Everytown for Gun Safety" -- which advocates for gun-control laws -- the ability to file a "friend of the court" brief in Norman's case. The NRA says it will provide more detailed evidence to refute that group's claims, if it's allowed to submit a brief of its own.

Read the NRA's request here.

April 06, 2016

Florida state officials agree to settle in Medicaid lawsuit over care of poor children

via @Marbinius

Florida health administrators have agreed to settle a long-simmering lawsuit that claims the state’s Medicaid insurance program for needy children is so poorly funded and managed that impoverished youngsters are consigned to a second-rate healthcare system where long waits for access and substandard care are the norm.

A federal court judge in Miami sided with needy children and their doctors in a 153-page ruling in December 2014, saying state lawmakers had so starved the Florida Medicaid program of funding that it was operating in violation of federal law.

In the ensuing months, health administrators — at the urging of U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan, who presided over the trial — mediated the dispute with lawyers for the children and the state Pediatric Society. The negotiations yielded a settlement with the heads of the state Department of Health, the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children & Families, all of whom were parties to the litigation.

Though state leaders had continued the battle even after Jordan’s stunning ruling, healthcare for needy children had become a public relations nightmare for the state. Administrators at the Department of Health last year purged 13,000 children from one of the premier Medicaid plans for youngsters, Children’s Medical Services, and had shuttered CMS offices, including clinics for children with disfigured faces and other disabilities. Public outrage over the cutbacks, and other agency moves, may have cost the health department’s secretary, John Armstrong, Senate confirmation.

April 01, 2016

Federal judge affirms gay marriage ban is unconstitutional after Florida officials resist compliance

@ByKristenMClark

Although gay marriage has been legal in Florida for more than a year and the law nationwide since last summer, a U.S. District Court judge ruled definitively this week that Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Judge Robert L. Hinkle said that Gov. Rick Scott’s administration and the state Legislature need to recognize that and also start treating same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples in all aspects of law.

Hinkle wrote that he was compelled to grant summary judgment in a long-standing lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s same-sex marriage ban because state officials have shown little, if any, inclination to accept and follow last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the implications of it.

“After the United States Supreme Court issued [its ruling], one might have expected immediate, unequivocal acceptance,” Hinkle wrote. “Not so for the State of Florida.”

More here.

March 30, 2016

Florida appeals court to hear arguments in Tax Credit Scholarship suit

From the News Service of Florida:

A state appeals court will hear arguments May 10 in a lawsuit led by the Florida Education Association challenging the state's Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

The 1st District Court of Appeal last week set the hearing date after Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds tossed out the lawsuit in May 2015 because he ruled the plaintiffs did not have legal "standing."

The voucher-like Tax Credit Scholarship program provides tax credits to companies that donate money to non-profit entities that help pay for low-income children to attend private schools.

In a brief filed in August with the appeals court, the plaintiffs argued they have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the program.

"Appellants (the plaintiffs) pled specific injuries resulting from the scholarship program, asserting that the diversion of tax revenues to send students to private schools in Florida intentionally and necessarily results in significant reduced funding to Florida's public schools to the detriment of the students, teachers, and others associated with the schools represented in this lawsuit,'' the brief said.

But attorneys for the state, in a December brief, disputed that the plaintiffs have standing.

"(The) trial court correctly ruled appellants have not identified any special injury stemming from the scholarship program," the state brief said. "Appellants' theory of harm hinges on the conclusory allegations that they 'have been and will continue to be injured by the scholarship program's diversion of resources from the public schools.' But these allegations, and the theories of harm underlying them, are necessarily speculative and wholly insufficient to confer standing."

March 22, 2016

Florida Supreme Court to hear open-carry case in June

From the News Service of Florida:

The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments June 8 in a challenge to a state law that bars people from openly carrying firearms.

Justices issued an order Monday scheduling the arguments in the challenge filed by Dale Norman, who was arrested in 2012 in Fort Pierce while openly carrying a gun in a holster. After a jury found Norman guilty of a misdemeanor charge, the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld the state law, ruling it does not violate constitutional rights to bear arms.

Norman then appealed to the Supreme Court, which said in October that it would take up the case.

During the legislative session that ended this month, lawmakers considered proposals that would have allowed people with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry guns. But the measures did not pass.

March 18, 2016

South Florida Republicans break with GOP in deportation vote

@jamesmartinrose

Only five Republican lawmakers stood up to their party leader in voting against allowing House Speaker Paul Ryan to file an amicus brief opposing President Barack Obama's decision to withhold deportation for more than 5 million undocumented immigrants.

All three Cuban-American representatives from South Florida -- Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Marco Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo -- were among the five Republicans who voted against a resolution that the House passed Thursday almost entirely along party lines.

The Supreme Court next month will hear a case brought by Texas, joined by Florida and 24 other states, arguing that Obama's bid to shield about 5.2 million illegal aliens from deportation imposes unaffordable health-care, education, law-enforcement and other costs on them.

Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who replaced Ohioan John Boehner as speaker in October, acknowledged that House intervention in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court was unprecedented, but he insisted it was necessary to prevent executive overreach by Obama.

With no Democrats voting for the bill, Ryan and other Republicans said Obama's executive orders dating to 2012 amount to the president legislating immigration reform without going through Congress.

"I recognize that this is a very extraordinary step," Ryan said on the House floor. "I feel it is very necessary, though. In fact, I believe this is vital."

In a joint statement Friday, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart said that although individual members of Congress have the right to file briefs supporting court cases, the House as a whole should not do so.

"All amicus briefs should carry the same weight, and beginning this pattern may signal to the Supreme Court that Congress is prioritizing certain cases over others," the two Miami Republicans said.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a first-term Republican from Kendall, went further. He accused Republicans of playing politics with the important issue of immigration.

"For two long, both parties have preferred to score petty political points using the immigration issue rather than passing meaningful reform to secure the border, reform our visa system and find a fair solution for the undocumented," Curbelo said.

"The surest and most constitutionally solvent way to end the president's executive overreach is to pass meaningful immigration reform, not by employing empty tactics that ignore the root cause of the problem," he said.

The two other Republicans who voted against the House resolution were Reps. Richard Hanna of New York and Robert Dold of Illinois. Rep. Alex Mooney, a West Virginia Republican and one of five other Cuban-Americans in Congress, voted for the measure, which passed by a 234-186 margin.

Among Florida's 24 other U.S. House members, 22 voted along party lines, with Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel and Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan failing to vote.

Nine other Florida Democrats voted against the measure, among them Reps. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Two lower courts have ruled in favor of the states, most recently the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans.

With only eight justices on the Supreme Court since Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month, a 4-4 decision after the scheduled April 18 arguments would uphold the lower courts' rulings and overturn Obama's executive orders protecting millions of undocumented parents and their children from deportation.

Obama on Wednesday chose Merrick Garland, a former federal prosecutor and current judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to replace Scalia on the high court, but Senate Republican leaders are refusing to take a vote or even hold hearings on the nomination, saying Obama has only 10 months left in office.

Immigration has become perhaps the most divisive issue in the presidential campaign, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump vowing to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat of Puerto Rican descent, ridiculed Republican lawmakers, many of whom he said have disingenuously tried to distance themselves from Trump's hardline stance on immigration.

"They keep saying, 'Well, Trump doesn't represent us, he doesn't (represent) our views, he doesn't represent our values,' and now they want to know where Trump gets all of his anti-immigrant, xenophobic views from," Gutierrez told reporters. "Try the House of Republicans."

In a speech Friday on the House floor, Gutierrez accused his Republican colleagues of "stoking anti-immigrant fears and mass-deportation fantasies."

"The vote is a political stunt disguised as a legal brief because the Republican majority sees a crass political opportunity to stand with the anti-immigration wing of their party," he said.  

The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and 60 individual business leaders, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, filed an amicus brief supporting Obama last week.

Before the vote Thursday, Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez, head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said "the Latino community is being used for political purposes."

Sanchez added: "We are being demonized, we are being marginalized, and we see a frightening level of hateful rhetoric and vile hate speech aimed at our community, and nobody is standing up within the Republican Party to say that this is unacceptable."

America's Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group, said the vote Thursday was the eighth "anti-immigration" vote taken by Republicans in the current session of Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and 223 other Democrats filed an amicus brief backing Obama earlier this month, but there was no vote on the brief and it represents them as individuals.

In still another amicus brief, almost 120 cities and counties across the United States on March 8 expressed support for Obama, among them Pembroke Pines, Tampa and Sunrise.