June 22, 2016

Report: Florida gets an 'F' for failing racial and gender diversity among court judges

Florida supreme court.1_12061496_8colFlorida is one of 26 states to receive a failing grade for its gender and racial diversity, according to the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, progressive legal organization. Florida ranked 29 out of 51 state court jurisdictions in the country because it's judiciaries are 45% less diverse than the state population.

The findings echo some of the research done by the Herald/Times in 2014, which found that Gov. Rick Scott appointed only nine black attorneys to judgeships in his first four years. 

The report, authored by law professors Tracey E. George and Albert H. Yoon, compiled the race, ethnicity, and gender of 10,000 sitting judges on state courts. It is  titled The Gavel Gap: Who Sits in Judgement at State Courts?

“The vast majority of Americans’ interactions with the judicial system, ranging from traffic violations to criminal proceedings, happen in state courts,” said George of Vanderbilt University. “When people do not see themselves represented in their community leadership, when the vast majority of judges cannot relate to the lived experience of those they serve—this is a problem. It creates a mistrust of judges, and propagates the mystery surrounding the court system. For the first time, we have the data we need to identify and address this serious problem.”

Photo: Tampa Bay Times


June 10, 2016

Whose cell phone was ringing in Florida Supreme Court? (Yes, his)

via @stevebousquet

Cell phones are strictly prohibited in the chambers of the Florida Supreme Court. As visitors pass through a security kiosk, they must surrender their phones until they leave. No exceptions. But during oral arguments Thursday, a cell phone began chirping while Justice Barbara Pariente was speaking. Chirp, chirp, chirp.

The ringing sound was loud and clear, so it had to be very close to Pariente's microphone. The justice who sits directly to Pariente's left is Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, and as the court called a recess, the chief accepted responsibility for the unwelcome noise.

"I never bring the phone to court -- never," Labarga was heard saying on an open microphone. "I bring it one day and this happens."

June 09, 2016

Marco Rubio says 'concerns' are why he halted South Florida judge's nomination

After months of being vague, Marco Rubio told an Orlando TV station this week exactly why he was blocking the nomination of a South Florida judge to the federal bench.

Politico obtained a portion of an unaired interview that Rubio gave with WFTV in Orlando on Monday.

In it -- Politico reported -- Rubio said he had "concerns" that Miami lawyer Mary Barzee Flores gave, what Politico described as, "conflicting answers" to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and the Florida Judicial Nominating Commission about her previous support for a left-leaning political group, EMILY's List. Rubio was also reportedly troubled that Barzee Flores wasn't candid about her involvement in a 2001 criminal case that resulted in claims of ineffective counsel.

Four years ago, a federal judge found Barzee Flores and then-fellow Miami federal public defender Reuben Camper Cahn had "prejudiced" the case of a client, Yuby Ramirez, when they gave bad advice for her to reject plea deals from prosecutors. The judge threw out Ramirez's life sentence.

President Barack Obama nominated Barzee Flores, a former state circuit court judge, more than a year ago for a vacancy on South Florida's federal bench. Rubio's delay in advancing her nomination in the U.S. Senate has sparked criticism of partisanship.

Rubio told the Miami Herald last week that Barzee Flores was the "wrong person" for the federal appointment but didn't offer specifics.

Read Politico's full story here.

June 02, 2016

Florida's cost for same-sex marriage court fight: Nearly $500K

From Dara Kam at The News Service of Florida:

Florida taxpayers are on the hook for almost $500,000 in fees to lawyers who successfully challenged the state's prohibition against same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, who initially balked at paying the legal fees, has agreed to pay $280,000 to Jacksonville lawyers William Sheppard, Betsy White and Sam Jacobson, who represented two same-sex couples, according to documents filed in federal court on Wednesday.

Bondi's office last month agreed to pay $213,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which represented eight same-sex couples who were married in other states.

The settlements came after U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in April that the lawyers in the consolidated cases were entitled to the fees, and nearly two years after Hinkle first ruled that Florida's voter-approved same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional.

Hinkle put a stay on his August 2014 constitutional decision until January 2015, when same-sex marriages began in Florida.

A battle over the legal fees began last summer, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry. The Supreme Court ruling came in a case involving other states, but it cemented Hinkle's ruling that Florida's ban was unconstitutional.

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June 01, 2016

Florida's courtroom cameras get attention as Congress studies whether to allow them in SCOTUS

For Floridians, having access to live coverage of oral arguments before the state's highest court is nothing new -- the court has allowed cameras in the courtroom since 1979 and live coverage since 1997.

But across the nation, and the world, the idea is still gaining traction and Florida is a model, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, released on Tuesday.

The GAO report, intended to help Congress as it studies the possibility of similar broadcasts at the U.S. Supreme Court, includes detailed information about the Florida Supreme Court’s program to broadcast all of its oral arguments. According to the Florida Supreme Court, every oral argument "has been broadcast on the Web, on cable television, and via satellite since that program began in 1997. Videos also are archived for access at any time."

The GAO report cites the cooperative relationship the court has with the taxpayer-funded Florida Channel and notes that "Florida case law establishes a presumption that coverage is allowed and requires judges to make an on-the-record finding to prohibit coverage."

The report cites how the program has been used to expand public understanding of the court system, and cites a Florida court official who stated that "high-profile, controversial cases can be misunderstood by the public and broadcasting oral arguments in their entirety can help dispel misconceptions about the case and how the court operates."

Notably, the court's live broadcast of oral arguments in the 2000 Bush v. Gore presidential election case, "helped educate the public about the judicial system and noted that it was beneficial for the public to be able to see the arguments and draw their own conclusions,'' the report said.

“It is flattering that the U.S. Congress turns to the Florida Supreme Court as it looks at ways of increasing public access to the highest court in the nation,'' ” said Chief Justice Jorge Labarga in a statement. “Considering the other courts they reviewed, it shows that we have set a world-class example.”

Cameras were permitted into Florida trial court proceedings on a limited basis starting in 1975 and, after four years of study, the court adopted its permanent rule in 1979 allowing cameras into trial and appeals court proceedings statewide.

May 11, 2016

Attorneys debate whether groups can sue over school voucher program


A three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal on Tuesday grilled attorneys for the state and for Florida’s largest teachers union, as the union argued why it should have its day in court to challenge a voucher-like education program the Legislature approved 15 years ago.

There was no immediate ruling from the judges following the 50-minute hearing.

The judges are considering two primary questions at this stage in the lawsuit: whether the union and its allies have standing to sue the state over the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and whether the union is articulating a specific harm the program does to public schools.

May 09, 2016

Appeals court to consider teachers' lawsuit over tax-credit scholarships


A panel of appeals court judges will hear oral arguments on Tuesday in the next phase of a high-profile and controversial lawsuit challenging a voucher-like scholarship program that helps poor children attend private school in Florida.

But the merits of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program won’t be argued just yet.

First to be resolved is whether the state’s largest teachers union and other plaintiffs even have the right to make their case that it’s unconstitutional.

The Florida Education Association and its allies want the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee to overturn a Leon County judge’s ruling from almost a year ago that tossed the lawsuit. Circuit Judge George Reynolds III ruled that the plaintiffs didn’t have legal standing to bring the case.

The FEA appealed last summer because it wants its day in court — despite mounting public pressure from scholarship supporters who want the union to “drop the suit.”

Read more here.

April 28, 2016

Three Floridians among Obama nominees to federal district bench


President Barack Obama on Thursday nominated U.S. magistrate judges in Jacksonville and Ocala and a prominent Tampa lawyer for federal district court seats, adding their names to a backlog of dozens of judicial picks the Republican-controlled Senate has failed to confirm.

Obama named Magistrate Judge Patricia D. Barksdale of Jacksonville and Tampa white-collar defense attorney William F. Jung to the Middle District of Florida, and he chose Magistrate Judge Philip R. Lammens for the Northern District of Florida.

"There is a judicial emergency in the Middle District of Florida right now," Sen. Bill Nelson said. "Sen. Rubio and I have conferred on these three nominees, and even in this highly partisan environment, I'm hopeful that we can get them approved quickly."

Aides to Rubio confirmed that the two senators had worked together in recommending the Florida nominees to Obama.

Rubio, however, declined to say whether he would push for his Senate Republican colleagues to confirm them. Republicans are refusing to hold hearings or to vote on Obama's nomination last month of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

With 85 federal district seats unfilled nationwide, Florida has three of 28 vacancies deemed "emergency" by the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy-making body for federal courts overseen by the Supreme Court.

The emergency designation is based on a combination of the length of vacancy and how many cases are pending before a court.

Both seats that Obama moved to fill Thursday for the Middle District of Florida are among the 28 emergency vacancies, with one seat empty since June 30, 2015, and the second seat unfilled since August 1 of last year.

The Middle District of Florida had 9,401 cases in 2015, which is considered a heavy load. It stretches from south of Naples on the Gulf Coast to the Georgia border and includes Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando.

Obama also nominated five other district judges to seats in Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and the District of Columbia.

"Throughout their careers, these nominees have displayed unwavering commitment to justice and integrity," Obama said of his eight choices for judicial promotion. "Their records are distinguished and impressive, and I am confident that they will serve the American people well from the United States District Court bench."

The Senate on April 11 unanimously confirmed Waverly Crenshaw Jr., an African-American lawyer from Nashville, Tenn., to a federal district judgeship.

The Senate confirmed just 17 of Obama's judicial nominees last year, the fewest since 1960.

Before becoming a U.S. magistrate judge in 2012, Lammens was a federal prosecutor in Jacksonville, the city's No. 2 attorney and a civil trial lawyer in the torts division of the U.S. Justice Department. He earned his law and undergraduate degrees from the University of Florida.

A U.S. magistrate judge since 2013, Barksdale also previously worked as a federal prosecutor in Jacksonville. She, too, has undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida.

Jung is a founding partner of the Jung & Sisco law firm in Ocala, specializing in white-collar criminal defense. He was a federal prosecutor in Miami in the late 1980s and clerked before that for then-Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist. Jung received his law degree from the University of Illinois and his undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University





April 18, 2016

Florida Supreme Court chief justice to attend White House forum


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


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.

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