February 02, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Both the House and Senate are in session today, and they'll have plenty of old and familiar faces on hand as their special guests for the morning. Here's what we're watching:

* Current and former lawmakers will come together in each chamber, as part of a weeklong legislative reunion in Tallahassee. The House is set to honor former members during a special "reunion" session from 9:15-10 a.m., and then the Senate plans to do the same from 11 a.m. to noon, after an hour of regular floor work.
* The House convenes again for its regular session at 4 p.m. Daily business is set to include debate on sanctuary cities, revisions to the state's 10-20-Life law and two high-profile guns bills -- open carry and campus carry.
* The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will consider a proposal to address Florida's death penalty procedures in the wake of the Hurst v. Florida U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this month. A Senate panel held a similar hearing last week. Along that same vein, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning on whether Hurst applies to the case of death-row inmate Michael Lambrix, who has been denied a stay for his execution set for Feb. 11.
* The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee will debate two controversial ideas: Making both the commissioner of education and the secretary of state elected positions.
* A contingent of current and former NFL players will join Democratic lawmakers for a press conference urging the Legislature to sign off on a settlement deal reached in the wrongful death suit of Florida State University freshman linebacker Devaughn Darling. Darling collapsed and died in 2001 while participating in a series of intense conditioning drills at FSU.

January 13, 2016

In light of SCOTUS ruling, Florida inmate set to die next wants answers


Within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court handing down a ruling invalidating Florida's process for sentencing criminals to death, the next death-row inmate scheduled to be executed filed a petition seeking to test the ramifications of the ruling.

The execution of convicted double-murderer Michael Lambrix is set for Feb. 11. An order issued by the Supreme Court Tuesday (and announced today) orders attorneys for the state to answer how Hurst v. Florida -- the case which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on this week -- applies to Lambrix's case.

The court’s 8-1 opinion in Hurst states that a jury must impose a death sentence. Under current law, judges make that decision based on the jury’s recommendation, a procedure unique to Florida. Both Lambrix and Mark James Asay, who is scheduled to be executed in March, were sentenced to death under the now-unconstitutional rules system, as were an unknown number among Florida's 390 death-row inmates.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered the state to respond by Jan. 20 with answers to: "the retroactivity of Hurst, the effect of Hurst in light of the aggravating factors found by the trial court in Lambrix’s case, and whether any error in Lambrix’s case is harmless."

Florida's Supreme Court justices haven't addressed the Hurst ruling and don't plan to, except in open court where appropriate for the cases before them, a court spokesman said. Ethics rules prohibit the justices from commenting on pending matters.

December 14, 2015

Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Leander Shaw dies

Leander Shaw-Chief Justice_1990


Former Florida Chief Justice Leander J. Shaw, Jr. -- the state's first African-American chief justice -- died early Monday morning after a lengthy illness, according a statement from the Florida Supreme Court.

He was 85.

Shaw was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court in 1983 by then-Gov. Bob Graham. He was the second African-American to serve on the state's top bench and the first chosen after Supreme Court elections were eliminated in the wake of corruption scandals during the 1970s.

In 1990, he became chief justice, serving in that role until 1992. He left the bench in 2003 after reaching the mandatory retirement age.

“Justice Shaw served Florida with dedication and distinction, first as a lawyer and then as a member of Florida’s highest court for two decades,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said in a statement. "Leander Shaw was one of a handful of judges, who helped restore the public’s faith in the Supreme Court and who transformed it into one of the most respected courts in the nation. This was no small feat after the scandals of the 1970s."

Continue reading "Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Leander Shaw dies" »

December 09, 2015

Miami-Dade judge who swore at store clerk scolded by Supreme Court



The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday scolded a Miami-Dade County judge, who last year told a store owner to “go f--- yourself” in the midst of a heated re-election campaign.

As part of the punishment for her judicial misconduct, Jacqueline Schwartz appeared before the justices for a formal reprimand — the last of several disciplinary measures taken against her.

Reading from prepared remarks, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga admonished Schwartz for her use of “one of the worst profanities known to the English language,” which he said violated the public’s trust in her.

In June 2014, Schwartz cussed at a convenience store owner in a dispute over an oversized campaign sign Schwartz’s opponent had put up at a Coconut Grove Kwik Stop before the primary election.

Schwartz lost her temper and also threatened to sue store owner Firas Hussein after he refused to let Schwartz put up her campaign sign as well. Schwartz, whose courtroom is in Hialeah, was later reelected.

She was also chastised for violating judicial codes by interfering with the official court record in a separate case. She made notes in the margins of original court documents, then later asked her bailiff to erase them when an attorney requested certified copies of the documents with her notations.

Continue reading "Miami-Dade judge who swore at store clerk scolded by Supreme Court" »

November 24, 2015

Oscar Ray Bolin, Jr. asks Florida Supreme Court to stay execution


A death-row inmate facing execution in January for a murder in Pasco County 30 years ago is asking the Florida Supreme Court for a stay in the case and to grant a hearing so his attorneys can argue "newly discovered evidence," which a circuit court recently rejected.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed the death warrant for Oscar Ray Bolin, Jr., last month, scheduling his execution for Jan. 7.

Bolin killed three women in the Tampa Bay area in 1986. He was sentenced to death for two of them and is serving a life sentence on the third. The scheduled execution is for the murder of Teri Lynn Matthews, whom he abducted from the Land O' Lakes Post Office in the early morning hours of Dec. 5, 1986.

In a motion to the Supreme Court filed late Monday, Bolin's attorneys argue they have new evidence that needs to be heard, including that an Ohio inmate "confessed to having committed the murder." Download Filed_11-23-2015_Motion_Briefing_Schedule

A circuit court last month denied Bolin's request for an evidentiary hearing on the matter, reasoning that the "confession was not evidence of a magnitude that it would probably produce an acquittal or a sentence other than death if admitted at a retrial."

After Scott signed Bolin's death warrant, Bolin appealed his case once more to the Sixth Circuit Court, and on Friday, the court denied Bolin's motion for rehearing and a request to vacate the death sentence. 

Bolin was convicted of abducting Matthews and then bludgeoning her with a wooden club, spraying her with a water hose and loading her into a truck to dispose of her body. She was found wrapped in the sheet on the side of the road in Pasco County later that day with severe head injuries and stab wounds in her neck and body.

Bolin previously appealed his case to federal court but his petition was denied in 2013, and the 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals also denied to review the case.

Bolin has been convicted of two other murders in Hillsborough County. He is currently sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of Stephanie Collins and is serving a life sentence for the 1986 murder of Natalie Holley.

Broward circuit judge charged with ethics violations


A Broward County circuit court judge is accused of multiple ethics violations, because he allegedly offered advice to an assistant public defender last spring and engaged in subsequent "inappropriate conduct" in reaction to that accusation.

The Florida Supreme Court announced this morning the Judicial Qualifications Commission's decision to bring formal charges against Judge John Patrick ContiniDownload Filed_11-23-2015_Notice_Formal_Charges

After learning of Contini's email to the public defender in March, the state attorney's office sought Contini's removal from the related case because they said his advice to the defendant's counsel negated his impartiality.

The state attorney's office appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeals to have Contini removed, and a stay was placed on hundreds of Contini's criminal cases -- freezing their progress and leaving defendants in jail because Contini couldn't hear their cases.

Contini initially refused to step away. Then, in August, Contini asked for and was granted a transfer to the family court division, following a blow-up over his dispute with the state attorney's office, according to a report by the Sun-Sentinel.

The commission wrote that after Contini first appeared before the JQC's investigative panel, "(he) again breeched the judicial canons by exhibiting discourteous, impatient and undignified conduct" during court discussions of the state attorney's appeal.

For example, the commission said he repeatedly referred to attorneys handling the appeal as "idiots" and their work as "fraudulent," and he also called the Attorney General's position in the case as "a lie from the pit of hell."

"The events of this case have been broadcast in the local and regional news media, further amplifying the negative effect of your actions," the commission wrote.

The JQC said his actions "constitute inappropriate conduct" in violation of five canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Contini has 20 days to offer a written answer to the charges.

November 05, 2015

Florida Supreme Court: Alex Diaz de la Portilla didn't actively flout court in divorce dispute over dogs


The Florida Supreme Court says a former Miami Republican state senator's failure to show up for court hearings related to the custody of family dogs in his bitter divorce four years ago doesn't constitute "direct criminal contempt" of court because there was a lack of evidence that he knowingly failed to attend the hearings.

Rather Alex Diaz de la Portilla's defiance of a court order constituted a more passive act, known as "indirect criminal contempt," the court said in its 18-page ruling, released Thursday.  Download Sc14-1625

During the divorce proceedings, Diaz de la Portilla was ordered to hand over one of two family dogs  -- Elvis and Priscilla -- to his then-wife, lobbyist Claudia Davant, but failed to do so. (Diaz de la Portilla is brother to current Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.)

In 2011, Alex Diaz de la Portilla didn't show up for two court hearings, where Davant asked a judge to hold her husband into contempt of court for not delivering the couple's dog as ordered. After the second time, the trial court judge issued a warrant for Diaz de la Portilla's arrest and sought to hold him in direct criminal contempt, saying he was "thumbing his nose" at the authority of the court.

But the Florida Supreme Court -- agreeing with the First District Court of Appeals -- said people held in contempt have to be given the opportunity for a hearing before such a finding of guilt is made. The court said there was a lack of evidence that Diaz de la Portilla was notified that he was required to attend the hearings in person.

"When an individual fails to appear, the court is not capable of making the necessary inquiries of the absent individual, and likewise is unable to hear evidence of excusing or mitigating circumstances. The rules of criminal contempt must be strictly followed so as to protect the due process rights of the defendant," Justice Fred Lewis wrote in the 6-1 opinion, with Justice Charles Canady dissenting.

Canady said the court shouldn't have even considered the case, because the Supreme Court was only asked for its advisory opinion on when direct-versus-indirect criminal contempt applies. The First District Court of Appeal had deemed the issue "of great public importance" because there had been conflicting precedent set by Florida's trial courts and district courts of appeal.

"This court should not be in the business of issuing advisory opinions except as specifically authorized by the Florida Constitution," Canady wrote in his dissent.

What does this mean for Diaz de la Portilla? His contempt-of-court charge gets kicked back to the trial court.

November 03, 2015

Term limits proposal for Florida Supreme Court justices, appeals judges advances in the Florida House

John wood


Florida’s Supreme Court justices and District Court of Appeals judges would be limited to two terms in office, under a proposed constitutional amendment that gained initial favor from a House committee Tuesday.

Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, said term limits for the state’s seven justices and 64 appellate judges would ensure “diversity of legal philosophy,” “enhance the proper role of the judiciary,” and “create a true balance of power” with the Legislature and the governor, which are already subject to term limits.

Wood is co-sponsoring HJR 197 with Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora.

But some lawmakers, as well as attorneys speaking on behalf of The Florida Bar, fear the proposal could lead to less-experienced judges and high turnover on the bench, among other consequences.

Continue reading "Term limits proposal for Florida Supreme Court justices, appeals judges advances in the Florida House" »

September 18, 2015

Court: Labarga recovering from cancer surgery

Labarga-2015The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday announced that Chief Justice Jorge Labarga had a successful surgery for kidney cancer Monday at Shands Hospital in Gainesville and doctors "predict a quick recovery."

Labarga, 62, the state's first Hispanic chief justice, was diagnosed with the early stages kidney cancer through routine blood tests earlier this year and advised him to have the kidney removed at the University of Florida’s medical school teaching hospital, Shands, the court said. 

Labarga was "resting comfortably amid a room full of Florida ‘Gator gifts and balloons from well-wishers'' and "has resumed some of his duties as Chief Justice using remote equipment from his hospital room,'' the court reported. 

"Doctors found no signs that the cancer had spread and predict a full and quick recovery for Florida’s 56th Chief Justice and its first of Hispanic descent,'' the statement said. 

Doctors had discovered the cancer in its early stages through routine blood tests earlier this year. They advised him to have the kidney removed at the University of Florida’s medical school teaching hospital, Shands.

Photo: Courtesy of the Florida Supreme Court

September 15, 2015

Florida Supreme Court to reprimand Miami-Dade County judge Dec. 9


Miami-Dade County Judge Jacqueline Schwartz
Miami-Dade County Judge Jacqueline Schwartz, pictured here in her Hialeah courtroom in 2013. ROBERTO KOLTUN / EL NUEVO HERALD

The Florida Supreme Court has set the date for when Miami-Dade County Judge Jacqueline Schwartz will receive her official reprimand for telling a store owner last year to "go f--- yourself."

The court will administer its tongue-lashing at 9 a.m. Dec. 9, the court said in a notice filed Tuesday. Download 09-15-2015_Letter_Scheduling_Reprimand

The reprimand is part of Schwartz's punishment for breaking judicial conduct rules when she insulted a Coconut Grove convenience store owner in June 2014. 

In a 4-3 decision in April, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a public reprimand and letter of apology to the store owner weren't sufficient enough punishment for Schwartz, whose courtroom is in Hialeah.

Last week, the court fined her $10,000 and imposed a imposed a 30-day unpaid suspension.

She spouted the profanity in a dispute over an oversized campaign sign Schwartz's opponent had put up before last year's primary election. (Schwartz was later reelected.)