On the Docket: Legal Issues to Keep an Eye On in 2013

By: Eric Giunta | Posted: December 31, 2012 3:55 AM
Legal Issues 2013
A number of legal developments are sure to dominate headlines in 2013, both nationally and statewide. In a nutshell, here are the issues we think readers should track as we enter into the new year:

1. Florida Supreme Court to Rule on Constitutionality of 2011 State Employee Pension Reforms

In March 2012, Judge Jackie Fulford of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court of Florida struck down a couple of provisions of the Florida Legislature’s 2001 state employee pension reforms, as they applied to state employees hired before July 2011. The reforms required new state employees to contribute 3 percent of their gross income to their retirement, and did away with the annual cost of living adjustment.

Fulford’s ruling has been appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on the matter soon. Will any of the justices be influenced by the fact that the state police and fire unions publicly endorsed their retention during the November 2012 elections? One hopes not.

If the Supreme Court upholds Fulford’s ruling, it might require the state to refund, with interest, more than 655,000 state and local government workers who’ve seen a reduction in their benefits since July 2011. It would also purportedly leave as much as a $2 billion hole in the state budget. The ruling will also, perhaps, clarify the nature and extent of the state constitutional “right to collectively bargain.”

2. Will “Stand Your Ground” Withstand Democrat Challenges?

After the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of volunteer crime watcher George Zimmerman – in an incident whose exact factual details are still being tried in court – Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is facing extra scrutiny. The law provides that victims do not have a “duty to retreat” from aggressors, and may “stand their ground” in self-defense, even to use deadly force when they reasonably believe they need to in order to prevent murder or great bodily injury.

In the aftermath of Martin’s death, several Democrats have lashed out against the law, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith has proposed his own amendment to the present law, which would purportedly make it less easy for the perpetrator of homicide to elude police investigation after invoking a “Stand Your Ground” defense. Just how will the Legislature vote on Smith’s bill, assuming it makes its way through the committee process? Stay tuned.

3. Florida’s 2012 Redistricting Faces Legal Challenges

Judge Terry Lewis of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court of Florida is hearing two challenges to the Legislature’s 2012 redistricting: one to the new state Senate map, the other to the U.S. congressional map. The challenges are being brought by a coalition of voter rights groups, who claim the redistricting amounted to gerrymandering in favor of Republican interests.

Both maps were cleared by the Florida Supreme Court before going into effect, and the Florida Constitution says that "A judgment of the supreme court of the state determining the apportionment to be valid shall be binding upon all the citizens of the state."

The Florida Legislature is asking Lewis to dismiss the challenges on the grounds that he has no jurisdiction to hear the case, while the plaintiffs argue the Supreme Court’s judgment of validity pertains only to “facile” defects easily detectable, but does not preclude subsequent challenges after more detailed scrutiny.

The Florida 1st District Court of Appeal is hearing an appeal to a determination by Lewis – in congressional map case – that legislators (and their staff) are privileged from disclosing to the courts “subjective” facts pertaining to the redistricting process – i.e., facts pertaining to legislators’ personal thoughts and feelings – but can be compelled to testify as to “objective” facts (e.g., data used to inform decision-making). The Legislature insists both types of facts are privileged information; plaintiffs argue that neither is.

The course of this litigation might have implications for both the extent of state legislative privilege and the scope of judicial review of the redistricting process.

4. U.S. Appeals Court to Determine Constitutionality of Mandatory Drug Testing for State Welfare Recipients

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit will be hearing Florida’s appeal of a lower federal court ruling that determined that the mandatory drug testing of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients, required by a 2011 state law, violates constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.

5. Can U.S. Congress Force Counties to Preclear Changes in Voting Laws with Federal Government?

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case, arising out of Alabama, challenging provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) which requires jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to apply for preclearance from either the United States attorney general or the D.C. district court.

Plaintiff Shelby County argues that the 14th Amendment gives Congress authority to enact “appropriate” legislation for the enforcement of racial minorities’ voting rights, but that the preclearance requirements are no longer appropriate, because federal designation as a county with a “history” of discriminatory practices is based on conditions that existed in the 1960s and 1970s and are no longer in existence.

Florida has five counties that are still so designated by the federal government: Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Monroe. If the Supreme Court overturns these provisions of the VRA, these counties will no longer need to have changes in their voting laws approved by the feds.

6. Will U.S. Supreme Court Force States to Redefine Marriage?

On Dec. 7, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear two challenges that implicate the “gay marriage” debate: the constitutionality to the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage in that state in heterosexual terms.

The second case in particular is set to become the “Roe v. Wade” of gay marriage. The court will decide whether the 14th Amendment’s equal protection provisions require states to redefine marriage according to the ideological canons of 21st century liberalism, or whether – given the Constitution’s silence as to these definitions – this is properly a states issue.

Florida’s voters amended the state Constitution in 2008 to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

7. Florida Supreme Court to Decide Constitutionality of Red Light Camera Citations Issued Before July 2010

The Florida Supreme Court announced Nov. 6 that it would hear appeals by two motorists who are contesting the legality of red-light camera citations issued before July 2010, and is expected to hear oral arguments soon.

Between 2007 and July 2010, a handful of cities in the Sunshine State installed red-light cameras at several traffic stops. The devices, which are operated by private corporations, contain special sensors which are supposed to videotape and snap photographs of the license plates of drivers who run red lights. Employees of the corporation review the videos taken, and submit those of apparent traffic offenses to city police officers, who in turn make the final determination into whether a driver receives a code violation (not a traffic citation).

It was only in July 2010 that the Florida Legislature passed a law expressly authorizing and regulating red-light cameras; the plaintiffs in the instant lawsuits insist that local governments were constitutionally and statutorily pre-empted from installing the controversial devices before the Act went into effect.

Lawyers say if the court rules in their clients’ favor, it could result in millions of dollars in refunds for thousands of citizens.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116. 

Comments (1)

8:30PM DEC 31ST 2012
The state’s review panel did not recommend significant changes to the current “Stand Your Ground” statute, so I hope Senator Smith and others will pursue a thorough and effective legislative update. Some past applications of the defense and associated prosecutorial paralysis (that defies common sense) should move residents on both sides of the use-of-force debate to support changes. While I don’t think Stand Your Ground applies to the Zimmerman-Martin shooting, I hope the attention the incident has given to evaluating the current statute will preclude others from walking away from actions contrary to self-defense.

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