June 12, 2016

'This is our Paris': Florida U.S. Senate candidates react to Orlando nightclub shooting


The eight Republican and Democratic contenders for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat were quick to weigh in this morning on social media about the deadliest mass shooting in American history, which happened overnight at an Orlando nightclub.

Most offered measured responses for thoughts and prayers, while one spoke of her support for gun control and another laid definitive -- but yet unproven -- blame for the gunman's motive.

Republican candidate Carlos Beruff called the tragedy "an evil act of a radical Islamic terrorist in Orlando." He added: "Thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families this morning."

As of this morning, local, state and federal authorities were still investigating the gunman and his potential motives. He has been identified as Omar Mateen, of Port St. Lucie. He is of Afghan descent. Investigators are exploring whether Mateen could have been self-radicalized, or had connections to overseas terrorism groups, the Miami Herald reported.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Pam Keith, of Miami, tweeted in the wake of the shooting: "I will NEVER cease advocating for measures that will reduce the number of Americans who die from gun violence." (Along a similar vein, the Florida League of Women Voters issued a call to action this morning, demanding better gun control laws in Florida.)

Democratic candidate and current U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson -- whose Orlando-based district is a few miles away from the Pulse nightclub where the shooting occurred -- called it a "terrorist attack" and posted information on his Facebook page about grief counseling services available to Orlando-area residents and the need for blood donations.

In a statement, Grayson said: "Our thoughts and our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the entire Orlando community. Words cannot express the horror, pain and sadness that we feel about this terrible loss. I commend the Orlando police for their heroic efforts to save the lives of those who could be saved."

Republican Todd Wilcox, an Orlando businessman, said he was "holding my girls a little closer this morning."

"Prayers for those impacted by the unspeakable act of terror in our hometown of Orlando," he tweeted. 

Democratic Senate candidate and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy said he was "devastated by the news of the shooting in Orlando." Murphy represents northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, including Port St. Lucie where authorities say the gunman was from.

"My heart goes out to the victims, their friends and family, and all those affected by this horrifying tragedy, including those in the LGBT community," Murphy wrote on Facebook. "Orlando is stronger than this act of hate and evil. Thank you to our first responders for your brave and selfless actions." 

Republican Senate candidate and U.S. Rep. David Jolly, of Indian Shores, said: "This is our Paris. Let us never forget -- and let us always resolve to confront and defeat terror at the hands of evil."

Republican Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera said: "Our prayers are with those and their families devastated by last night’s act of terror."

Added Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach: "My thoughts & prayers are with the victims, families & people of Orlando. Thanks to law enforcement who responded to this act of terror."

After Orlando shooting, Florida League of Women Voters calls for better gun control laws


Just hours after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history left at least 50 people dead and several dozen more injured at an Orlando nightclub on Sunday morning, the Florida League of Women Voters issued a call to action and demanded better gun control laws in the Sunshine State.

"The time for action is NOW. Guns kill people. That is a fact," read the email signed by league President Pamela Goodman. "Florida must be a leader NOW for necessary gun legislation.

"Call your Florida Representative and State Senator. We must have expanded background checks and extensive REQUIRED safety training for all permit holders," Goodman's message continued. "This is a public safety issue. We must all be responsible and take action for the safety of our citizens."

The email blast from the group was sent at 9:53 a.m., about five hours after the hostage situation ended at the Pulse nightclub and as authorities were still assessing the victims and investigating the gunman.

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.

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

May 18, 2016

Florida lawmaker wants AG opinion on feds’ transgender bathroom rules; Pam Bondi declines


An outgoing conservative lawmaker in Florida who is running for Nassau County schools superintendent wants state Attorney General Pam Bondi to issue an official opinion on what she believes to be the "constitutional encroach" of the Obama administration's new guidance to public schools over transgender students' bathroom access.

State Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, called the president's new policy a "clear violation" of states' rights under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"It is clear that the Obama administration is once again circumventing the Congress and even its own federal rule-making process to impose new federal rules and laws on Florida’s public schools," Adkins said in a statement this morning.

MORE: Read Rep. Adkins' letter to Bondi

But Bondi’s office isn’t wading into the issue. Deputy Attorney General Kent J. Perez wrote in a response to Adkins on Wednesday afternoon: “We do not issue legal opinions on federal law.”

On Friday, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice sent letters of guidance to all public schools nationwide informing them that they must treat students in ways that match their gender identities -- or risk losing federal money under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in educational programs based on sex.

Republican leaders in Florida have been reluctant to comment so far on the new guidelines. But Adkins, the outgoing chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Subcommittee, wants a swifter response: For the state to challenge the Obama administration's directive.

Read the full story here.

Published 10:49 a.m.; Updated 4:30 p.m.

May 16, 2016

Rep. Wilson to chair hearing on helping young people of color


Rep. Frederica Wilson on Tuesday will bring together lawmakers and youth experts from Florida and beyond for a congressional forum on expanding opportunities for black and Latino young people.

Michael Smith, special assistant to President Barack Obama and head of the White House My Brother's Keeper program, will moderate the forum. Wilson will be joined by Arnaldo Gonzalez, Miami-Dade Schools chief of growth and development, and education leaders from North Carolina, Virginia and other states.

Also speaking will be Albert Dotson Jr., a board member of 100 Black Men of America who helps run the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

"As the founder of the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, an in-school dropout prevention and mentoring program, I have experienced firsthand the powerful influence that a caring adult can have on a young person's life," Wilson, a third-term Democrat from Miami Gardens, said.

In February, Wilson helped launch the Congressional My Brother's Keeper Caucus. It now has 18 members, among them Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar; South Carolina's Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat; and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

When he started the My Brother's Keeper mentoring program in 2014, Obama drew criticism from some advocacy groups for excluding young women and girls. Wilson's hearing Tuesday will focus on expanding opportunities for male and female people of color.





May 11, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott will visit Capitol Hill to make pitch for Zika funding


Republican Gov. Rick Scott is headed to Washington, D.C., this afternoon to visit with eight members of Florida's congressional delegation.

The topic: Federal aid to prepare for and combat the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

"We've got to have a federal plan," Scott told reporters on Tuesday. "My job is to help get the state prepared and that is what this trip is to do."

MORE: Daily Florida Zika Virus Tracker

Scott's daily schedule includes meetings on Capitol Hill with only Republicans: U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, both of Miami, Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville, Tom Rooney of Okeechobee, Curt Clawson of Bonita Springs and David Jolly of Indian Shores, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

"It's going to get warmer, we're going to have more rainfall, we're probably going to see more mosquitoes in our state," Scott said Tuesday. "Our federal government has a variety of plans they're talking about. ... We've got to address the Zika issue. Hopefully, we can get ahead of it."

Scott did not specify what amount of funding or resources he's seeking from the federal government.

"We're working through our Department of Health and our mosquito boards -- whether it's more money for our mosquito boards, whether it's to make sure they have the right testing kits or to make sure, if we have a significant outbreak, do we have all of the resources?" he said.

As of Tuesday, the Florida DOH reported 109 known cases of Zika. All were travel-associated from people returning to the U.S. from other countries; no one had contracted the virus in Florida.

Scott said DOH continues to work with local mosquito boards to get ahead of the virus, and he said it's time for the federal government to step up.

"I think of it like a hurricane," Scott said. "The way you prepare for a hurricane is you get prepared and the federal government needs to come together, work together and provide the funding for the things that are necessary to our states."

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.

Continue reading "Jacksonville Rep. Reggie Fullwood indicted on federal charges" »

April 14, 2016

Gov. Scott signs 'school choice' education bill, 19 others into law; vetoes dental incentive



Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Thursday a massive education bill that will let public school students, starting in 2017-18, attend any school in the state that has space available.

Starting next school year, the measure also will let high school athletes have immediate eligibility when transferring schools, and it will subject charter schools to more accountability and a new formula for receiving capital dollars.

Scott also signed 19 other bills, including the session's main transportation package and new laws affecting health care policy and Citizens Property Insurance Committee.

He also issued his second veto of the session, disapproving of HB 139 -- which would have provided incentives for dentists who practice in underserved areas or who treated underserved people. Scott said it did not place "appropriate safeguards on taxpayer investments" and it "is duplicative of existing programs."

Scott has just three bills remaining to act on of the 272 that lawmakers passed during the 2016 session. Two require his action by Saturday and the final one -- a controversial bill reforming alimony and child custody arrangements -- is due for action by Tuesday.

Continue reading "Gov. Scott signs 'school choice' education bill, 19 others into law; vetoes dental incentive" »