Politics

Weekly Roundup: All Eyes on Supreme Court

By: Jim Saunders News Service of Florida | Posted: March 31, 2012 5:00 AM
First, the usual disclaimer: It's notoriously difficult to predict how the U.S. Supreme Court -- or many other courts, for that matter -- will decide complicated cases.

But landmark Supreme Court hearings this week added fuel to the arguments of Attorney General Pam Bondi and other Florida Republicans that the 2010 federal health-care overhaul is unconstitutional.

The Florida GOP has played a leading role in fighting the law, known as the Affordable Care Act. Former Attorney General Bill McCollum filed the constitutional challenge immediately after President Obama signed the law, and Bondi, who was elected in 2010, has become one of the overhaul's most visible critics.

Conservative justices this week appeared to go along with the Republicans' argument that the act's so-called "individual mandate" is unconstitutional. That part of the law would require almost all Americans to have health insurance in 2014 or pay a penalty.

Perhaps most worrisome to the Obama administration was that Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely considered a key swing vote, seemed to have doubts about Congress's authority to impose such a requirement.

"I understand that we must presume laws are constitutional, but, even so, when you are changing the relation of the individual to the government in this unique way, do you not have a heavy burden of justification to show authorization under the Constitution?'' Kennedy asked U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.

But more-liberal justices appeared to go along with the administration's argument that Congress had the power under the Constitution's Commerce Clause. They said the cost of providing health care to the uninsured ultimately gets shifted to other people through higher insurance premiums.

"Those (uninsured) people are in commerce," Justice Elena Kagan said. "They are making decisions that are affecting the price that everybody pays for this service."

Other parts of the hearings, however, were more difficult to parse. A particularly complicated question, for example, centers on whether the Supreme Court should throw out the entire 2,700-page law if it finds the individual mandate unconstitutional.

Florida officials also are watching closely to see whether justices will uphold part of the law that would lead to a major expansion of Medicaid.

The Obama administration argues that Congress has always had the power to expand Medicaid eligibility. But Florida says the law is unconstitutionally coercive because it includes the possibility that states would lose billions of dollars in federal Medicaid funding if they don't go along with the expansion.

Bondi, who attended the three days of hearings and made the rounds of media interviews, repeatedly expressed confidence that justices will side with the law's opponents.

"As the states have argued all along, if the federal government can compel citizens to purchase health insurance they do not want, then it can force us to purchase anything," she said after the individual mandate arguments.


A DIFFERENT KIND OF COURT BATTLE


Back home in Tallahassee, Republican lawmakers this week approved a newly drawn Senate redistricting plan.

To which the Florida Democratic Party had a pithy response: "We'll see you in court,'' party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan said immediately after the House gave final approval Tuesday.

The vote was the second time lawmakers have approved a Senate redistricting plan this year -- and the second time judges will determine whether the map is constitutional.

Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the Legislature's plan to revamp House districts. But it rejected the Senate maps, forcing lawmakers to again bring out their Etch A Sketches and draw new lines.

While senators approved the revised map last week, some Republican House members were irked. Miami-Dade GOP House members voted against the plan because they said it didn't create a fourth Senate district that likely would be won by a Hispanic.

Democrats, meanwhile, kept pounding Senate Republican leaders about creating districts that would shield incumbents from the possibility of running against each other.

"It kind of reminds me of the gang that couldn't shoot straight,'' said Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston.


STAND YOUR GROUND UNDER FIRE


The National Rifle Association has long been a powerful force in Tallahassee.

But as the Sanford shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin continues to create a national furor, NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and her legislative allies face growing pressure to revamp the state's "Stand Your Ground" law.

"There's a critical and urgent need to look at the law, and at least clarify it, or explain it,'' said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

Some black lawmakers have called for holding a special legislative session to deal with the law. While that appears unlikely, Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who was an original sponsor of Stand Your Ground in 2005, acknowledged that it might need to be clarified.

"There's nothing in the statute that provides for any kind of aggressive action, in terms of pursuit and confront,'' Baxley said. "So I think that's been some misapplication of this statute. If anything could come out of this very tragic circumstance, it could be some clarification of when this applies and how."

Stand Your Ground, which was backed by the NRA, has drawn widespread attention since neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Martin last month. Zimmerman, who has not been charged in the death, contends that he fired in self-defense.

The law allows people who feel threatened in public to stand their ground and use force to defend themselves, eliminating a prior responsibility to try to retreat. Questions in the Martin case center, at least in part, on whether Zimmerman pursued the teen before shooting him.

Gov. Rick Scott wants to wait until the conclusion of the Martin investigation before addressing the Stand Your Ground law. He has appointed an outside prosecutor, Angela Corey, to head the investigation and also has announced that a task force will later look at issues such as Stand Your Ground.

"We still don't know the effect the Stand Your Ground law might have in this case, so it would be premature to begin evaluating facts when more facts are yet to emerge,'' Scott spokesman Lane Wright said. "Governor Scott believes we need to be thoughtful and thorough as we deal with this awful tragedy, and for those reasons he will not interfere with the investigation or prematurely expedite the work of the task force."


QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "In other words, the federal government is here saying, we are giving you a boatload of money'' -- Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan as Florida and other states challenged the constitutionality of a Medicaid expansion in the federal health overhaul -- "... there's no matching funds requirement, there are no extraneous conditions attached to it, it's just a boatload of federal money for you to take and spend on poor people's health care. It doesn't sound coercive to me, I have to tell you."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The U.S. Supreme Court heard three days of arguments in the Florida-led challenge to the federal Affordable Care Act. Justices are expected to announce their decisions in June.

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