April 24, 2012

Tick tock of almost missed merit retention paperwork reveals 'comedy of errors'

It was six minutes after 10 a.m. on Friday morning and, Dan Stengle recalls, "my life passed before my eyes."

The legal counsel for the merit retention campaigns of Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince was told by the justices' campaign treasurer that the three justices hadn't completed all the paperwork needed to run in their merit retention election on the November ballot.

The justices were just minutes into a two-hour redistricting hearing -- the only issue since Bush v. Gore on which the court has scheduled a two-hour hearing.

Stengle, whose law office is five blocks from the Supreme Court building, called the courthouse, then ran over to it.

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February 17, 2012

Judge won't block closure of Hillsborough prison

Unless the Legislature moves to save it, Hillsborough Correctional Institution could close as soon as March 30.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis refused to issue a temporary injunction blocking the Riverview prison's closure, saying the inmate plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit had not proven the Deparment of Correction's plan to close the facility violated state law.

Under the proposal, Hillsborough Correctional inmates will be transferred to dormitories currently under construction at Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County complex. The successful faith- and character-based program will also transfer with them.

Lewis ruled on the case Friday afternoon after listening to roughly three hours of testimony over two days.

Though he refused to halt Hillsborough Correctional's closing, the lasuit itself is still pending. Plaintiff's attorney Dean LeBoeuf said supporters will continue to monitor the transition plan to ensure that the state keeps its promise to provide similar programming and better living conditions for former Hillsborough Correctional inmates.

November 17, 2011

Miami court revives constitutionality of state illegal drug law

A state appeals court on Wednesday rejected a federal judge’s controversial ruling that Florida’s drug statute is unconstitutional. Story here.

Miami-Dade’s Third District Court of Appeal said it did not agree with a ruling by U.S. Judge Mary Scriven, of Osceola County, which said Florida’s drug law was “draconian” because prosecutors don’t have to prove that the accused actually knew of the illicit nature of the drugs they were carrying.

Scriven’s ruling, in Shelton v. Department of Corrections, has sparked thousands of requests statewide from defendants seeking their freedom.

At the heart of the issue is Florida’s Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law. In May 2002, the Legislature changed the state’s existing law, removing the burden of authorities to prove that the accused had “knowledge” of the illicit nature of the drugs, although the defendants could raise that defense at trial.

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November 16, 2011

Hawkes, under fire as judge of 'Taj Mahal, says he's resigning

1st District Court Judge Paul M. Hawkes is resigning from the court to avoid an ethics trial before the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Hawkes was charged in May with conduct unbecoming a judge, destroying public records and intimidating state employees involved in the construction of the court's new $50 million courthouse which many have dubbed a "Taj Mahal.''

The new courthouse has sparked outrage throughout the state as court employees have been laid off and budget cuts have forced other judges to postpone needed repairs to leaking roofs and malfunctioning air conditioners.

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October 28, 2011

Judges, clerks recommend solutions for funding problems

A workgroup of a dozen county clerks and judges published recommendations on Friday for stabilizing unreliable revenue sources for the courts and clerks systems.

One not very new idea for the courts: move judges' salaries into the state's general revenue fund and out of what has proven a volatile trust fund.

"It’s a constitutional guarantee that the state makes to the people of the state," said Lisa Goodner, state courts administrator.

The Supreme Court certifies the need for judges for the Legislature, which gets to decide the number of judges to prescribe. The report argues "it would be inappropriate to tie that process to the revenue in a trust fund."

The courts have struggled to support their budgets as mortgage foreclosure filings decline. Chief Justice Charles Canady has frequently asked for mult-million dollar loan transfers to fund basic operations due to the shortfall. About 83 percent of the entire courts system is funded by fees collected in the trial courts.

According to the workgroup's report, clerks and courts could share a new trust fund funded by fines and fees to be administered each month by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. The "core court system" trust fund would then be divvied into the clerks' trust fund and the start courts' trust fund to pay for operations.

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May 11, 2011

Court overturns law that penalizes drivers for loud music

A Florida law that allows police to ticket drivers for playing their car stereos too loudly was ruled unconstitutional Wednesday by a Lakeland appeals court.

Judge Anthony K. Black, of the Second District Court of Appeal, concluded that the state law limiting the volume of audio in a car (316.3045) is unconstitutional because the law restricts loud music but excludes loud political or business speech.

"The statute is a content-based restriction on free expression which violates the First Amendment,” Black wrote in his 16-page ruling. 

The case was brought by Richard T. Catalano, a Clearwater attorney, and Alexander Schermerhorn, who received citations for playing their car music too loudly.

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March 17, 2011

Cannon's plan to split Supreme Court gathers steam

House Speaker Dean Cannon's bold plan to split the Supreme Court into two panels and to add three new justices moved forward Thursday with a party-line 10-5 vote by the House Civil Justice Subcommittee. The panel's chairman, Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, steered the bill to passage as expected, with all Republicans voting yes and all Democrats voting no.

The Cannon plan would replace the existing seven-member Supreme Court with two five-member panels, one to handle civil cases and the other to hear criminal cases. Republicans say the court spends too much time on death penalty appeals, forcing cases to languish for more than a year on the court's crowded docket.

Cannon, a Winter Park lawyer, is a vocal critic of the Supreme Court, and he has publicly criticized justices for overstepping their authority by stripping three legislative-sponsored amendments off the 2010 ballot. Cannon personally argued one of the rejected amendments before the court. 

The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Justice Reform Institute support the bifurcated court, while the Florida Bar and some judges voiced strong concerns. Polk County Circuit Judge John Laurent, a former state senator, said Cannon's plan seems to omit the post of chief justice, which Laurent called a serious problem. "We need a boss," Laurent said.

The Cannon proposal now moves to the House Judiciary Committee before hitting the House floor. Two other court-related bills that passed Thursday would require Senate confirmation of all appellate court judges in Florida and eliminate the Florida Bar's ability to recommend candidates to serve on judicial nominating commissions.

-- Steve Bousquet

November 18, 2010

Florida Supreme Court upholds only part of purchase of sugar land for Eglades

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday upheld part of the U.S. Sugar deal that allows the South Florida Water Management District to buy 73,000 acres of land from the sugar giant to improve water quality and restore the Everglades. But the court overturned a lower court ruling and prohibited the district from using the same payment method to buy an additional 107,000 acres over three years without additional review.

The most interesting read, however, is the fiesty opinion from Justice Fred Lewis who concurs with the result of the opinion but blasts his colleagues for the way they arrive at it. He accuses the court majority of perpetuating previous flawed rulings that allow local government -- and now the SFWMD -- to issue long-term debt without the constitutionally required voter approval. 

This "perpetuates and expands a distortion of our fundamental organic law, leads us beyond our prior precedent, and denies the voters of this State their constitutional right to determine whether their local governments should issue long-term debt that is ―payable from ad valorem taxation," Lewis writes.

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October 24, 2010

Joe Garcia may be more mellow this time around

He has tamed his unruly mop of hair -- and, perhaps, his impetuous nature.

Call it Joe Garcia, version 2010.

He's still the brash Democrat who ran for Congress two years ago and lost to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart by six points in an election year when Democrats clobbered Republicans to take the White House, the Senate and the House.

But that stinging defeat and a stint working for the Obama administration have mellowed the hard-charging Garcia, his friends say -- at least as much as can be expected for a guy who never met a political match he didn't like.

"No one will ever accuse me of not enjoying people,'' Garcia said with a grin in a recent interview. "I'm a believer that you have a good argument, but then you move forward, right?"

A longtime political operative, Garcia has never been elected to public office, though he has landed high-paying roles by appointment from Democrats in power.

Now Garcia, 47, is engaged in a tumultuous, closely watched battle with Republican David Rivera over Diaz-Balart's open seat in a key swing district targeted by both political parties. Allies of Garcia sued Rivera this week to disqualify him from the ballot over questions about Rivera's financial disclosures.

Read the full profile here.

October 22, 2010

McCollum backs off gay adoption ban, pulls the appeal

Attorney General Bill McCollum today announced that he has decided not to appeal the ruling that has thrown out the Florida's ban on the adoption of foster children by gay couples, putting an end to the law that has been on the books for 33 years.

The decision comes after McCollum's office spent years the constitutional challenge to the law, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Martin Gill, a Miami man who wanted to adopt two foster children he and his partner have been raising for almost six years. McCollum even got personally involved in the selection of an expert witness to defend the state law.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Department of Children and Families had already announced that they would not appeal the decision. McCollum made clear in his statement that he hopes for a future case to uphold the constitutionality of the law.

"The constitutionality of the Florida law banning adoption by homosexuals is a divisive matter of great public interest,'' McCollum's office said in a statement. "As such, the final determination should rest with the Florida Supreme Court, not a lower appellate court.  But after reviewing the merits of independently seeking Supreme Court review, following the decision of our client the Department of Children and Families not to appeal the decision of the Third District Court of Appeal, it is clear that this is not the right case to take to the Supreme Court for its determination. 

"No doubt someday a more suitable case will give the Supreme Court the opportunity to uphold the constitutionality of this law."

ACLU called McCollum's decision a welcome relief.

"This law, by baselessly branding gay people unfit parents, was one of the most notorious anti-gay laws in the country, and we are delighted that it has been ended once and for all,” said Leslie Cooper, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project, who argued the case before Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal. “This victory means that the thousands of children in Florida who are waiting to be adopted will no longer be needlessly deprived of willing and able parents who can give them the love and support of a family.”