October 15, 2013

St. Pete firefighter's case attracts Legislature's attention

A closely-watched legal case involving workers' compensation benefits, a disabled firefighter and the city of St. Petersburg is now before the Florida Supreme Court, which on Tuesday added it to its list of high-profile cases because of extensive public and media attention.

The case has drawn the interest of numerous business organizations, trial lawyers, unions, the Legislature and Attorney General Pam Bondi as well.

At the center of the case is Bradley Westphal, a former St. Pete firefighter who suffered a catastrophic spinal injury while moving furniture at a fire in 2009. As the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente has reported, Westphal sued the city after it stopped paying him temporary disability benefits at a time when he did not qualify for permanent total disability status. The First District Court of Appeal ruled in Westphal's favor and struck down as unconstitutional a provision in the state workers' compensation law that limits temporary disability benefits to two years.

Both houses of the Legislature have sided with the city of St. Petersburg in the case. Other friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed on the city's side by Publix Supermarkets, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries and the National Federation of Independent Business. The Florida Justice Association, Florida Worker Advocates and the Florida Police Benevolent Association have taken up Westphal's cause in court.

-- Steve Bousquet

August 01, 2013

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Arthur England, 80

Arthur England Jr., who served more than six years on the Florida Supreme Court in the 1970s at a time when it was recovering from a string of scandals, died Thursday at his home in Coral Gables. He was 80.

In the early 1970s, England served as a special tax counsel to the Florida House of Representatives, a role in which he helped craft a proposed corporate profits tax in Florida, a major plank in Reubin Askew's 1970 platform for governor. England later served as Askew's consumer adviser.

England served on the state's highest court from 1975 to 1981, and was its next-to-last justice who was popularly elected by the voters. His path to the bench was an unusual one: Justice Richard Ervin was approaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, and Askew believed he should appoint Ervin's successor, but the Supreme Court ruled the seat must be filled by election.

England filed for the seat anyway, despite his misgivings about an elective judiciary, ran a low-budget campaign and defeated Sam Spector, a trial court judge, in a 1974 election.

As a justice, England was a stickler for the use of common, easily-understood language in legal briefs, once opting to author an opinion as "by the court," rather than the more common "per curiam." He also championed a program to use the interest on lawyers' trust accounts for their clients to pay for legal services for the poor -- the first program of its kind in the United States, and one modeled on a similar program in Canada. He first proposed the idea in a 1976 speech to the Florida Bar Board of Governors in Crystal River.

After he left the bench, England spent two decades as an appellate lawyer at the Greenberg Traurig firm in Miami and later formed his own law firm.

-- Steve Bousquet 


June 25, 2013

SCOTUS ruling helps landowners, raises costs for wetlands protection


The U.S. Supreme Court gave the family of a Central Florida landowner – as well as property owners and developers across the state and country – a significant victory on Tuesday with a ruling that stands to make it tougher and more expensive for government agencies to protect the nation’s dwindling wetlands.

In a 5 to 4 decision, the court found that the St. Johns River Water Management District had imposed excessive demands on Coy Koontz Sr., who was denied a permit to build on a 15-acre plot outside of Orlando unless he offset or “mitigated” for paving over wetlands by restoring wetlands owned by the district several miles away.

Koontz died several years ago but his son, Coy Koontz Jr., said the family was ecstatic at winning a land-use legal battle dating back nearly two decades and giving other landowners “a bigger stick” to fight similar cases in the future.

“As my wife said, it certainly vindicates my father’s decision to take this fight on,” Koontz said during a media conference call organized by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a private property rights advocacy group that represented the family in the case. More here.

-- Curtis Morgan

June 17, 2013

Supreme Court agrees to expedite briefs in redistricting case

The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to partly expedite the review of the redistricting challenge brought by the League of Women Voters and a coalition of  individuals and voter groups this month by giving the parties until June 21 to file their briefs.

The court did not say whether it would also conduct an expedited hearing in the case, thereby interrupting the court's traditional summer break, but it did not deny the request for the fast-track hearing either.

The League and several other plaintiffs are asking the court to review a precedent-setting appellate court decision issued last month that allows legislators to be shielded from discovering proceedings in a redistricting challenge.

Lawyers for the House and Senate successfully argued before the First District Court of Appeals that legislators and their staff enjoy blanket immunity from being forced to turn over their work papers or testify regarding redistricting. 


March 15, 2013

Tampa immigrant moves step closer to Bar admission


Jose Gomprez-Samperio, the Tampa man seeking admission to the Florida Bar even though he's not an American citizen, has moved one step closer to realizing his dream. An administrative board that screens all applicants for bar admission has ruled that he is of sound character to practice law. 

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners has notified the Florida Supreme Court of its decision reached at a meeting last weekend that "nothing presently contained in the investigation file will, in and of itself, be considered disqualifying." That double-negative phrasing may not sound significant, but it is especially welcome news to Gomprez-Samperio, an FSU law school graduate who was valedictorian of his senior class at Armwood High in Tampa. 

In an accompanying notice, the board's general counsel, Robert Blythe, wrote: "While this present matter before the Court does not involve Mr. Godinez-Samperio's bar application directly, this supplemental authority is pertinent in that the status of the board's processing Mr. Godinez-Samperio's bar application has been a topic addressed in previous pleadings in the Court."

In Florida, the admission of attorneys to practice law is a judicial responsibility, and the 15-member Board of Bar Examiners screens all candidates for bar admission on character and fitness issues. Applicants must submit proof of good moral character and must pass the bar exam to practice law.

Godinez-Samperio's request for bar admission has been before the state Supreme Court since October. At issue is whether a license to practice law is considered a "public benefit," which a federal law bars undocumented immigrants from receiving.  In the past few months, Godinez-Samperio has received a Social Security card, Florida driver's license and federal approval for a work permit.

-- Steve Bousquet

March 07, 2013

Scott picks 'conservative' Forst for 4th DCA post

Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday appointed Treasure Coast attorney Alan Orantes Forst to a vacancy on the 4th District Court of Appeal.

Forst had angered some judicial watchdogs for touting "conservative credentials" on his application. He replaces Fred Hazouri, who retired from the court that handles appellate cases in Broward and Palm Beach counties and the Treasure Coast.

Scott selected Forst over four judges with extensive trial court experience. Four of the six finalists were seasoned judges (Peter Blanc, Glenn Kelly, Janis Brustares Keyser and Krista Marx).

Forst is an attorney and chairman of a state agency, the Florida Reemployment Assistance Appeals Commission. The Palm City resident included in his application a section he labeled "Conservative Credentials," and name-dropped Clarence Thomas, Bob Dole and Jeb Bush.

Forst noted that he was a college Republican and Ford-Dole volunteer and worked for a pro-Ronald Reagan political action committee. He worked in President Reagan's Justice Department, where his duties included being a liaison between the agency and Clarence Thomas, who then was chairman at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

-- Steve Bousquet 

February 25, 2013

Execution set for Tuesday raises new questions about Florida's death penalty

The execution of Paul Augustus Howell scheduled for Tuesday has put Florida’s death penalty process under the microscope again.

Howell, 42, was convicted in 1992 of the pipe-bomb killing of Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jimmy Fulford in Jefferson County, east of Tallahassee. If he dies by lethal injection as scheduled, his attorneys say, he will be the first Florida inmate to die without his case having been reviewed in federal court under a habeas corpus appeal. They argue Howell deserves that review — and a chance to seek another trial.

They say the court never heard about the conflict of interest involving his trial attorney, the failure to tell the court of Howell’s brain damage, his paranoia, child abuse or his lost court files. And the court never heard about Howell’s inadequate representation from the appellate lawyer who missed a crucial deadline for his federal review.

“Lawyers who never met the client in the 13 years they represented him lost his records in a flood and haven’t asked for new ones,” said Sonya Rudenstine of Gainesville, a new attorney hired by the inmate’s family. “If it weren’t so tragic, it would be a comedy of errors.”

The Florida Supreme Court rejected an appeal last week by Howell’s new attorneys and, when they filed a second appeal the court rejected that on Monday. The court said it could not address claims he may raise in federal court. His attorneys have filed a new request in federal court in Tallahassee. More here.

November 13, 2012

State courts struggle with Supreme Court ruling on young killers

Five months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

But since the Miller v. Alabama decision, Florida courts have struggled to apply the ruling — and two Miami-Dade cases may help settle key lingering legal questions.

Does the ruling apply to past cases? A Miami appeals court, ruling on a South Miami-Dade killer convicted in 2000, doesn’t think so. That decision, which affects at least 180 cases statewide, is likely bound for higher courts.

When a judge last month gave convicted killer Benito Santiago 60 years in prison — making him the first South Florida juvenile sentenced afterMiller — prosecutors immediately vowed to appeal, saying the sentence was illegal.

The nation’s high court in Miller, and a companion case, struck down laws in 28 states that handed out mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of murders. The ruling, while hailed by civil rights activists, doesn’t mean Florida judges can’t still impose a life sentence for murder. But they now must at least consider a defendant’s age.

The opinion follows the high court’s 2010 decision in a Jacksonville case that ruled that sentencing minors to life without the possibility of parole in non-homicide cases constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” The reasoning: science has shown that youth’s brains are not fully developed, and they are susceptible to impulses and the influences of others. More from David Ovalle here.


November 05, 2012

Conservative group files last ditch lawsuit to oust justices from the ballot

The conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation has filed a last minute lawsuit on behalf of a Destin man that seeks to remove from Tuesday’s ballot the three justices seeking retention to the Supreme Court.

The claims are similar to one offered up earlier this summer when the same group asked a state court to remove the justices from the ballot, arguing that Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince failed to properly file their qualification papers. The justices are on the ballot as part of the requirement that they come before voters every six years on a retention vote.

Judge Terry Lewis dimissed the case in August, but now the group is back, this time bringing a petition for a writ of quo warranto -- demanding that Secretary of State Ken Detzner remove them from the ballot and accusing him of failing in his duties. They filed the petition with the state Supreme Court, the same on court which the three justices sit.

“The Secretary of State has violated his duty to uphold the Florida Constitution and enforce Florida Law, specifically the Florida Election Code, with regard to whether Justices’ Lewis, Pariente, and Quince qualified for the 2012 general election ballot for merit retention,’’ the 48-page brief filed late Monday says. “Under the Florida Election Code, it was the duty of the Secretary to determine that each of the three Justices had failed to meet the mandatory constitutional and statutory qualification requirements...”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Denny Jones of Destin. Download Filed_11-05-2012_Petition

Q and A with Florida's justices up for retention

Three of Florida’s seven supreme court justices are up for a retention vote in what has become the highest spending judicial election in state history.

The justices, Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barabara Pariente and Peggy Quince,  collectively raised $1.5 million for their campaigns, a decision, they said, was provoked when the conservative Americans For Prosperity announced they will oppose their retention.

When the Republican Party of Florida announced it was also opposed to retaining the justices in September, an electioneering and communications organization formed on the justices’ behalf -- named Defend Justice from Politics -- raised another $4 million.

The Herald/Times sat down with the three justices in early October to discuss the effects of the unprecedented political push on their race. Here’s the transcript of our conversation:

Q: Until this year, a retention race in Florida never cost more than $300,000. Why has your race become so expensive?

Lewis: Because a there is an attempt to push it into a partisan political battle.

Quince: And it’s never been that way before. We have always had non-partisan elections here and merit retention has always been non-partisan. This would take us back to what we had 40 years ago when we had the scandals on the Supreme Court.

Pariente: This is unprecedented. It is a complete attack on the system of merit selection and retention in the state and, whether it was the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, it would be equally destructive.

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