Weekly Roundup: The Fights Before Christmas
Around the State
'Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the Capitol
Controversies were brewing, few of them little.
In hopes that they could endure a legal scare.
And Weatherford in the House, and Gaetz the Senate
Faced the legal version of a strong, stern tut-tut.
Groups challenging the constitutionality of the state's congressional districts must have thought they got an early Christmas gift last week when the Florida Supreme Court ordered that lawmakers would have to testify in a case against the new maps. But this week, they suggested that they also got a lump of coal.
In court filings, the groups asked for documents and testimony explaining why the Legislature might have destroyed records about the 2012 redistricting process that could be relevant to the case. That followed filings by lawyers for the House and Senate that suggested some of the papers the League of Women Voters of Florida and its allies were looking for might not be there.
"In strict compliance with these written record-retention policies, legislative records, including records related to congressional redistricting, were sometimes, and appropriately, discarded," lawyers for the Legislature wrote. "The legislative parties are without knowledge of the facts and circumstances of particular communications."
The argument from lawmakers was, essentially, that any record not protected by law is subject to the rules set out each term by the House and the Senate. None of the records that the Legislature must preserve were destroyed, but some of the documents that weren't specifically protected might have been.
Needless to say, groups opposed to the maps were not filled with Christmas cheer by the revelation.
"After all the public comments by legislators expressing their belief that litigation was inevitable, the admission that any redistricting records were destroyed should have Florida voters up in arms," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "Today's disclosure is just another example of those in charge abusing their power and then hiding behind the lame excuse that they didn't know what they were doing."
House Speaker Will Weatherford countered by adamantly denying that his chamber had been naughty.
"Any accusation that the Florida House of Representative thwarted the law and destroyed documents is completely false," said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who chaired the House committee that drew the lines in 2012. "We not only complied with the letter and the spirit of the public record laws and longstanding House rules, but also went above and beyond those standards when it came to redistricting."
DECK THE HALLS:
Meanwhile, the fighting over what can and can't go up in the Capitol lobby to mark the holidays raged through yet another week, with the Department of Management Services finally finding an example of what was not welcome at the parade.
It took awhile to get that far. After all, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- more often associated with opposition to the introduction of creationism and intelligent design as science in public schools -- was allowed to put up an office desk chair to hold the pseudo-church's pseudo-deity. (Or a representation thereof, made out of shredded papers that were presumably not destroyed redistricting records.)
The supernatural spaghetti followed a "Festivus" pole of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans put up by South Florida political blogger Chaz Stevens and seasonal signs from the Tallahassee Atheists, The American Atheists Florida Regional Directors and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
All of them were a protest against a Nativity scene put up by a Christian group, which drew new attention to holiday decorations at the Capitol. A large menorah has been displayed for years to mark Hanukkah without much controversy.
But Satanists -- or at least those claiming to be Satanists -- need not apply for space in the Capitol. DMS rejected as "grossly offensive" a display that showed an angel falling into hell.
Department administrative assistant Sherrie K. Routt late Wednesday emailed a denial to the New York-based Satanic Temple that said "the department’s position is that your proposed display is grossly offensive during the holiday season."
Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple, said in an email that his group is giving the department a short time to clarify the offensive nature of the display and to see if some compromise could be worked out before considering legal action.
"It seems unthinkable that the DMS should be presuming negative value judgments upon our very religion itself, engaging in blatant viewpoint discrimination, so we must assume that there is something tangible about the content of the display that is demonstrably astray from established community standards," Greaves said.
This isn't Florida's first encounter with the temple, which has also been pressing Oklahoma to erect a Satanic monument outside the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Last January, the "Satanists" drew about six of the self-professed devil worshippers to the steps of the Old Capitol for what they said was an event to praise Gov. Rick Scott -- but that was reported to be part of an effort to make a fake documentary.
SEXUAL PREDATOR LEGISLATION:
There was nothing festive about the highest profile legislation to be filed this week: a package of bills that Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said would make the state "scorched earth" for sexually violent predators.
The bills are expected to be a centerpiece of the 2014 session after the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported in August that nearly 600 sexual predators had been released only to be convicted of new sex offenses -- including more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.
"Over the last several months, we watched in disbelief and disgust as news accounts detailed stories of sexually violent predators slipping through the cracks of our criminal justice and civil commitment system and committing unthinkable repeat offenses against Florida’s most vulnerable children," Gaetz wrote to senators as the four bills were filed.
The bills are meant in part to strengthen the Jimmy Ryce Act -- named for a 9-year-old Miami-Dade County boy who was raped and murdered in 1995 -- which requires the Department of Children and Families to evaluate sex offenders before their releases from prison. Those considered most likely to attack may be screened, evaluated and confined at the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia until they aren't considered dangers to the community.
SB 526 by Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and chairman of the Senate Civil and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, would increase the length of sentences for certain adult-on-minor sexual offenses formerly classified as lewd and lascivious. It would ban reduced sentences for good behavior for people who commit certain sexual offenses and require courts to order community supervision after release from prison for those convicted of certain offenses.
Bradley's bill would also require sexual predators to be under community supervision after their release from civil commitment. Currently, those offenders participate in civil commitment and community supervision simultaneously. But the bill would require them to be under community supervision after their release from civil commitment.
Other bills filed included a measure (SB 528) by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, that would require registered sexual predators to report their vehicle information, Internet identifiers, palm prints, passports, professional licenses, immigration status and volunteer work at higher-education institutions; a bill (SB 522) by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, that would require sheriffs to refer prisoners serving sentences in county jails for civil commitment if they are registered sexual offenders or predators and have committed sexually violent offenses; and SB 524 by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, which would require that offenders be defined as sexually violent predators and be subject to civil confinement after a finding by two or more members of a multidisciplinary team.
The House also appeared to be on board with a push on the laws in 2014.
"If we have the strongest laws in place in the country to identify the worst of the worst, I think we can reduce the number of these offenses," said House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who is the son of the Senate president. "And most importantly, we won’t have to go and say to the parents of a child victim that we had the person in our custody, but we let them go and they harmed again."
STORY OF THE WEEK: A coalition of groups opposed to the state's new congressional districts demanded answers after a legal filing by the Legislature appeared to indicate that some records from the 2012 redistricting process were destroyed.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I think the seventh time is the charm."-- Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, on a proposed statewide domestic-partnership registry that would give gay -- and straight -- couples some of the same rights as their married cohorts.