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.

Continue reading "Q and A with Florida's justices up for retention" »

November 02, 2012

Campaign for justices shatters $5 million mark as opposition ads barely materialized

When the Republican Party of Florida launched its “grassroots” offensive against the three justices of the Florida Supreme Court, it unleashed a sleeping giant.

The state’s legal community galvanized in defense of the justices and opened its wallets. According to reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections and the IRS, lawyers are on track to raise $4 million to defend the justices in their bid to remain on the court in the November retention campaign.

The list of campaign contributions is a Who’s Who of elite law firms in Florida, including top lawyers who are politically connected with both parties. The three justices, R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, also will have collectively raised another $1.5 million in their individual campaign accounts.

The $5.5 million war chest shatters any previous records for a judicial campaign in Florida.

In just three weeks, dozens of law firms ponied up checks as large as $100,000 to an electioneering and communications organization set up to defend the justices. The organization, called Defend Justice from Politics, used the cash to pay for mailers, robo-calls, ads on social media and four to six weeks of television ads in the state’s largest media markets.

Supporters are predicting victory. “It’s over,” said Neil Roth, a Miami trial lawyer who has quietly coordinated the campaign to defend the justices. He predicts the justices are going to win the 50 percent plus one margin to be retained on the bench another six years. More here.

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October 26, 2012

Prosecutor in murder case at center of retention fight says justices are being unfairly targeted

The prosecutor in a controversial murder case that has galvanized opposition to the three Florida Supreme Court justices up for merit retention said Friday that the criticism  of the justices is “offensive and unfair” and they are being “attacked for overtly political reasons.”

Curtis M. French was a senior assistant attorney general in 2003 when the court ruled against him and ordered a new trial for Tallahassee murder Joe Elton Nixon. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Florida court ruling and now, nine years later, the Florida Republican Party has used the high court’s decision as its rationale for ousting the three justices from the state Supreme Court. Nixon remains on death row.

French not only has no hard feelings against the justices, he told the Herald/Times, he believes the criticism of Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince is “politically motivated” and unjustified.

The Republican Party of Florida, as well as the conservative-leaning Restore Justice 2012 organization, have accused the justices of “judicial activism” for their ruling on the case. The party’s executive committee unanimously voted to oppose the justices retention because of this case and others.

 “They’re using the case that I worked on as a means to give Republicans the opportunity to appoint more right-leaning justices,’’ French said.

Continue reading "Prosecutor in murder case at center of retention fight says justices are being unfairly targeted" »

October 24, 2012

Report from conservative legal group: Florida justices are not activist

A Florida professor commissioned by the conservative Federalist Society to review controversial cases of the three Florida Supreme Court justices up for merit retention concluded Wednesday that some of the most loaded charges used by opponents against the justices are unfounded.  Download Federalist Society

“There does not appear to be a pattern of unprincipled decision-making by any of the justices of the Florida Supreme Court,’’ wrote Florida International University profressor Elizabeth Price Foley after analyzing nine controversial cases since 2000. “There are disagreements, true. But disagreements do not suggest that those with whom you disagree are unprincipled.”

Although the Federalist Society does not take a position in the merit retention races, Foley said in a conference call with reporters that her review found that the controversial rulings “are in fact supported by some prior precedent and they do involve acceptable methods of legal reasoning.” 

Opponents who want to accuse them of judicial activism, she said, are “going to have a hard time making that label stick.’’ 

Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince are on the ballot in a yes or no vote and, for the first time, the Florida Republican Party has mounted a campaign to encourage voters to reject them.

Continue reading "Report from conservative legal group: Florida justices are not activist" »

October 18, 2012

Court appears skeptical of Bernard's Florida House primary appeal

From the News Service of Florida:

UPDATE: The News Service of Florida corrected a mistake in the third paragraph of this report, clarifying that if 40 absentee ballots were thrown out in the case it potentially could put Rep. Mack Bernard over the top in the race. Initially, the report said that the action would put Bernard in the lead.

Democratic Senate candidate Mack Bernard's quest to overturn his 17-vote primary loss in August met a trio of skeptical appellate judges on Thursday, as they seemed unwilling to second-guess a lower court's decision rejecting the challenge.

A three judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal heard arguments in a case pitting Bernard against fellow Democrat Jeff Clemens to see who will represent the strongly Democratic Senate District 27 in Palm Beach County.

Though they didn't rule, the judges said they would be hard-pressed to overturn a decision last month by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. The circuit judge let stand a Palm Beach County canvassing board decision to throw out nearly 40 absentee ballots that, if accepted, could potentially have put Bernard over the top in the tight race.

Citing a 2011 state election law, appeals-court Judge Nikki Clark seemed to echo the sentiments of her colleagues that Lewis appeared to fulfill a clearly defined obligation to compare the signatures on questionable ballots with those on voter registration records and determine if the canvassing board had abused its discretion by invalidating the votes.

Continue reading "Court appears skeptical of Bernard's Florida House primary appeal" »