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Weekly Roundup: Different Speeds for Justice, Politics

July 24, 2014 - 6:00pm

The justice system tends to move very slowly, and this week it seemed to be struggling to keep up with politics.

A circuit judge in Leon County pondered whether to try to redraw a flawed congressional redistricting plan with an election looming. Another judge in Monroe County grappled with his own decision that same-sex marriages should be allowed in Florida -- keeping that ruling on hold even as the newest Republican member of the state's congressional delegation supported allowing gay couples to wed.

Other things moved more quickly. The state announced that a "hurricane tax" that has cost Floridians almost $3 billion in recent years will end 18 months ahead of schedule.

And Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, now included in the Quinnipiac University Poll that occasionally checks in on the Florida governor's race, showed that figuring out who will win the state's top office in November could be more complicated than originally thought.


Even Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis expected that his decision striking down congressional districts approved by state lawmakers in 2012 would be appealed. Now that the Legislature is willing to go along with Lewis' opinion -- at least for now -- a new question has emerged about whether the state can use the current map in the November elections.

Attorneys for the state say yes. Their argument: It would be too complicated to try to redraw the map in time for the general election, much less the August primaries, in which some members of the armed forces stationed overseas have already voted.

"The fundamental problem is, we could have a new map tomorrow, and we still don't have time to make it for this election, because people have already returned their ballots and voted," Raoul Cantero, a former state Supreme Court justice representing the Senate in the case, told Lewis at a hearing Thursday.

But the voting-rights groups and voters who successfully challenged the map in court had a different spin on things: The map violates the anti-gerrymandering standards approved by voters in 2010, meaning it can't be used.

"The other side has an amazing tolerance for the fact that 18,800,000 Floridians are facing an election with an unconstitutional map," said David King, a lawyer for the organizations. "They don't seem to care very much about that."

For now, Lewis looks cautious in considering the challengers' most-radical ideas, including pushing back the date of the November elections or holding a separate, special election early next year under a new map.

"I have to tell you, I'm extremely skeptical that I can do what the plaintiffs want me to do," Lewis said near the conclusion of an almost three-hour hearing.

Lewis said he would try to issue a ruling by the end of next week.


One case the state is appealing: Monroe County Circuit Judge Luis Garcia's ruling that gay couples should be allowed to marry in Florida.

But same-sex couples in the Keys can't get married quite yet. Siding with Attorney General Pam Bondi and courts in other states, Garcia on Monday refused to lift a stay on his ruling.

The automatic stay was prompted by Bondi's appeal, filed almost immediately after Garcia issued his initial ruling that the state's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

Lawyers for Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, two Key West bartenders who sued Monroe County Clerk of Court Amy Heavilin for refusing to grant them a marriage license, asked Garcia to order Heavilin to start issuing marriage licenses because the state has little chance of winning its appeal.

But Bondi's lawyers asked Garcia to "maintain the status quo" as other courts have done throughout the country. Both sides anticipate that the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately decide the fate of same-sex marriage bans.

Meanwhile, newly minted Republican Congressman David Jolly was on the defensive after being quoted supporting Garcia's ruling to allow gay marriage. On Wednesday night, Jolly issued a 1,509-word long statement explaining how, Jolly said, he's never changed his position on same-sex marriage.

As a Christian, Jolly said he personally supports traditional marriage between a man and a woman.

"But as a matter of constitutional principle, I believe in a form of limited government that protects personal liberty, and therefore I believe all individuals, all couples should be allowed to determine the sanctity of their marriage by their own faith or their own beliefs of marriage," Jolly wrote.


Instead of a court-ordered delay, insurance policyholders in Florida will get a quick resolution with regard to an extra charge on property-insurance and auto-insurance policies to cover claims paid for the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

The Office of Insurance Regulation formally issued orders Tuesday for insurance companies to move up by 18 months the end of a 1.3 percent "emergency assessment" for the state-run Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which provides backup coverage to insurers. The levy will now end Jan. 1.

The assessment has hit policyholders for $2.9 billion, which has gone to reimburse insurance companies for claims from the eight hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004 and 2005, the last time a hurricane made landfall in Florida.

"It's been nine years since (Hurricane) Wilma," said Sam Miller, executive vice president of the Florida Insurance Council. "If anything, the assessment helps us remember how devastating these storms may be."

The orders make official a decision Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet made last month to end the assessment, Amy Bogner, a spokeswoman for the Office of Insurance Regulation, said in an email.

Scott has tried to turn lowering the cost of living in Florida into a campaign weapon, also calling this week for the state to make permanent the temporary lifting of a sales tax on the purchase of manufacturing machinery. The governor pushed a three-year cut through the Legislature in 2013, but wants the charge gone forever.


But the race between Scott and his Republican predecessor turned Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist, is already moving even more steadily toward a media war. Scott has spent millions to define Crist (and soften his own image), and Crist hit back this week with his second ad, going directly after Scott on education.

The new television ad points out the state currently spends less per student in public schools than it did during the best budget year of Crist's administration and has seen a reduction in the number of Bright Futures scholarships awarded to Florida students.

"When I was governor, we brought both parties together to open the doors of opportunity, not close them," Crist says in the ad.

Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who also chairs Scott's re-election bid, instead highlighted Crist's decision to cut school spending amid a recession at the end of the former governor's term.

"Rick Scott has cleaned up his predecessors mess, funding schools $370 more per student in state funds than Crists last budget," Thrasher said. "Charlie Crists fuzzy math wont fool Floridians."

The back-and-forth came despite a warning from Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll, that Libertarian candidate Wyllie was pulling 9 percent in the governor's race, in part because of the drumbeat of attacks that has for months defined the race between Scott and Crist.

"That is almost certainly a reflection of some unhappiness in the electorate with the tone of the campaign," Brown told reporters. "There's an old maxim in politics, which is you can't throw mud without getting some on yourself. And that seems to be what's happening to Mr. Crist and Mr. Scott."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Legislature and voting-rights organizations squabbled over whether to wait until after the November elections to redraw the state's congressional districts after they were found unconstitutional.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "The decline in my net worth is forcing me to make economies. I'm afraid I will have to cancel some newspaper subscriptions." -- Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who is worth $26 million despite reporting a $140,000 drop in his fortune in 2013.

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