April 01, 2016

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


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


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.


March 02, 2016

Senators try, fail to require unanimous jury decision on death-penalty cases; House compromise intact


Some senators this morning unsuccessfully tried to undo a political compromise with the Florida House that's intended to fix the state's death penalty sentencing procedures, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision related to Florida's law.

Under the agreement, at least 10 of 12 jurors would have to agree to impose a death sentence, as opposed to having only a simple majority under today's law.

But several senators, led by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, urged the chamber to force the House's hand and stick to requiring a unanimous jury decision -- a policy the Senate Criminal Justice committee endorsed by a 5-0 vote earlier this session.

Clemens argued that the Senate shouldn't allow "one or two members" to negotiate with the House and bypass the committee process, where policies are supposed to be vetted.

"We don’t have to yield to the House in any way shape or form," agreed Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge. "If we don’t pass a bill, the death penalty goes away and I don’t think the House is going to let that happen, so why not send them the best product possible?"

Baker Republican Sen. Greg Evers -- who advocated for the compromise -- said: "The problem is there's two bodies in the Legislature."

"We knew that we had to do something. There had to be common ground," Evers said.

After lengthy debate, Clemens' amendment narrowly failed, first by an 18-22 vote. The vote was reconsidered a few minutes later, after Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said "some wrong buttons were inadvertently pushed.”

The amendment failed a second time by a 17-23 vote, with three Republican senators changing their votes.

Sen. Rene Garcia, of Miami, changed from "no" to "yes." Sens. Tom Lee,of Brandon, and David Simmons, of Altamonte Springs, changed from "yes" to "no."

The Senate will take up the House's bill on Thursday for a final vote.

Florida, in practice, doesn't currently have the death penalty because lawmakers have yet to fix the state's legal procedure for sentencing in those cases, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional.

In its narrow decision, the court ruled that juries, not judges, should be the ones to impose the death penalty. But lawmakers fear that by not requiring a super-majority or even a unanimous jury decision, the state leaves itself vulnerable to constitutional challenges.

Florida is the only state using capital punishment in which as few as seven of 12 jurors can recommend death.

February 18, 2016

For second time, Florida Supreme Court reverses mother's conviction in 'Baby Lollipops' case

by @DavidOvalle305

For the second time, the Florida Supreme Court has reversed the conviction and death sentence for a Miami mother accused of starving, torturing and beating her toddler son known as “Baby Lollipops.”

The state’s high court — citing repeated “inflammatory” closing arguments by the case’s prosecutors — on Thursday reversed the conviction of Ana Maria Cardona.

“As we have stated for decades, we expect and require prosecutors, as representatives of the state, to refrain from engaging in inflammatory and abusive arguments, to maintain their objectivity, and to behave in a professional manner,” the court ruled in a 6-1 decision.

In 2010, Cardona was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of 3-year-old Lazaro Cardona.

The boy, badly beaten and weighing just 18 pounds, was discovered dead in the bushes of a Miami Beach bayfront home in November 1990. Unidentified at first, Lazaro was dubbed Baby Lollipops for the design on his T-shirt.

Prosecutors said Cardona physically abused Lazaro over months, eventually dumping his bloodied body before fleeing with her lover to the Orlando area.

In Thursday’s opinion, the Florida Supreme Court wrote that prosecutors “presented sufficient evidence” to support the guilty verdict and the death sentence. Story here. 

February 16, 2016

Alan Grayson wants Obama to make recess appointment to fill Scalia's SCOTUS seat


In keeping with a campaign to brand himself as an anti-establishment candidate in the Democratic primary for Florida's U.S. Senate race, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson has his own ideas on how President Barack Obama should fill Antonin Scalia's seat on the U.S. Supreme Court in the wake of the justice's death on Saturday.

Most Republicans -- including candidates for Florida's seat -- say either that Obama should not bother nominating someone during his final year in office or, that if Obama does, the Senate should block any attempt to confirm that nominee. Meanwhile, most Democrats argue it's the president's duty to nominate and the Senate's obligation to consider a nominee regardless of how much time is left in Obama's term.

But Grayson, D-Orlando, said in a campaign statement Monday evening he supports what would be an unconventional and highly controversial approach: Bypass the Senate's Republican majority altogether by appointing someone this week while the chamber isn't in session.

And he has a name in mind: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who -- like Grayson -- is a staunch progressive.

“She’s earned it, and she deserves it,” Grayson said. “And she’ll be so, so good at it.”

Obama was already quick to say over the weekend that he had no intention of making a recess appointment to the country's top bench.

But Grayson wrote in a column for The Huffington Post that if Obama took action now, "Justice Warren could take office immediately. The obstructionists in the GOP couldn't do anything about it."

He argued that if Obama delayed and later offered her up as a nominee, Warren might be more easily confirmed by the Senate because she's "one of their own."

"Would obstructionists in the Senate filibuster an Elizabeth Warren appointment, or vote against her? Maybe. But that seems like poor form against one of their own, for a place as clubby as the U.S. Senate," Grayson wrote.

While Grayson says Warren is "eminently qualified" to be a jurist -- because of nearly two decades' experience as a Harvard law professor and her "tireless and effective" work as a U.S. senator -- she's not among any of the short-lists of nominees Obama is said to be considering.

Grayson is in a contentious Democratic primary against U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, in the race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate. Murphy has the backing of the party establishment (including many sitting Democratic U.S. senators), while many progressives support Grayson.

Warren hasn't endorsed either candidate in the race.

February 13, 2016

Justice Antonin Scalia dies

WASHINGTON (AP) — Antonin Scalia, the influential conservative and most provocative member of the Supreme Court, died Saturday. He was 79.

The U.S. Marshals Service in Washington confirmed Scalia's death at a private residence in the Big Bend area of South Texas. Spokeswoman Donna Sellers said Scalia had retired the previous evening and was found dead in the morning after he did not appear for breakfast.

Scalia used his keen intellect and missionary zeal in an unyielding attempt to move the court farther to the right after his 1986 appointment by President Ronald Reagan. He also advocated tirelessly in favor of originalism, the method of constitutional interpretation that looks to the meaning of words and concepts as they were understood by the Founding Fathers.

Scalia's impact on the court was muted by his seeming disregard for moderating his views to help build consensus, although he was held in deep affection by his ideological opposites Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. Scalia and Ginsburg shared a love of opera. He persuaded Kagan to join him on hunting trips.

February 08, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee


Welcome to Week 5 of the 2016 session. Wednesday marks the halfway point! Most lawmakers will be back in town by this afternoon for committee meetings, with a regular schedule of work resuming Tuesday.

Here are some items we're watching today.

* Should future legislative sessions starts in January? The House government operations budget committee will consider a bill to do that for not next year, but in 2018. If enacted, that would mean a full year between the end of this session and the start of the 2017 session next March, but then another short window between 2017 and 2018 sessions. The hearing starts at 3.

* A Senate committee will take up a nondiscrimination bill for LGBT Floridians. It's the first time the legislation has ever had a hearing. The Senate Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m. will consider the controversial bill, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's civil rights protection laws, but it's already garnered opposition from social conservative and religious groups.

* Also before the Senate Judiciary Committee: a non-binding "memorial" urging Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which is often referred to as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. It's on the agenda but it could get postponed until Tuesday. The House version also is slated to be heard Tuesday.

* This afternoon, the Senate Criminal Justice will consider fixing Florida's death penalty in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed its sentencing procedure unconstitutional. Unlike the House, the Senate is proposing to go all the way and require unanimous jury recommendations. The hearing begins at 4.

* Community leaders from the western part of Tampa Bay will spend the evening at the Capitol, with "Leadership Pinellas" hosting a reception on the 22nd floor.

February 05, 2016

In historic move, Jorge Labarga to remain as Florida Supreme Court chief justice for second term


Jorge-Labarga-2015Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga continues to break historical records.

Two years ago, he became the first Hispanic person to lead the state's judicial system. On July 1, he'll begin his second term in that role -- becoming the first chief justice to succeed himself since the end of the Civil War and the first in four decades to serve more than one term.

The court announced this morning that the six other justices chose Labarga to serve for another two-year term as chief justice.

The Supreme Court has long followed a custom of rotating the chief justiceship to the next most senior member who has not yet held the post.

But in this case, Justice James E.C. Perry normally would have received the rotation in 2016, and he will be forced to retire due to age only a few months later. He chose not to stand for election, the court said.

As chief justice, Labarga leads the state's top bench and also serves as the administrative head of the state's judiciary.

“It is a privilege to serve the people of Florida,” Labarga said in a statement. “My second term will continue the work started during the first -– especially the efforts of the Access to Civil Justice Commission and implementation of both our new long-range plan and the first comprehensive statewide communications plan developed for the state courts system.”

Labarga, 63, was the second Cuban-American appointed to Florida’s high court. He came to Florida at 11 years old after the Cuban revolution. He graduated high school in West Palm Beach and then went to the University of Florida, where he earned his undergraduate and law degrees. Before becoming a Supreme Court justice seven years ago, he was a trial judge in Palm Beach County.

The court said the last chief justice to succeed himself was Charles H. Dupont, who was elected in 1860, served during the Civil War and then succeed himself in 1865.

Labarga also will become the first person to serve more than a single term as chief justice since the late Justice B.K. Roberts. He held the post for three non-consecutive terms, the last of which was in the early 1970s, the court said.