Politics

Weekly Roundup: High Court in High Gear

By: Michael Peltier News Service of Florida | Posted: May 12, 2012 3:55 AM
The Florida Supreme court took center stage this week as it reversed itself and approved term limits for local officials while hearing arguments in a handful of cases that will affect homeowners, legal immigrants and potential deportees.

Gearing up for November, state election officials estimate that as many as 180,000 ineligible voters may be on the state's voter rolls.

The November hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion prompted Florida's university system chancellor to urge FAMU trustees not to strike up the band quite yet as the university continues to battle fallout from the tragedy, which also forced the retirement of the Marching 100 director, Julian White.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott's popularity rises with the economy as at least one poll released this week shows that more Floridians think he is doing a good job. The downside is that a larger share continue to think he is not.

HIGH COURT IN HIGH GEAR:

The Florida Supreme Court had a busy week that included a full docket of closely watched cases and at least one decision that will have election implications in the fall.

The state's highest court backed away from an earlier ruling to decide voters in charter counties can impose term limits if they want on local officials. The immediate cases involved the ability of voters in Broward and Sarasota counties to place term limits on county commissioners.

While upholding the term limits Broward and Sarasota County residents placed on their commissioners, the court also retreated from a 2002 ruling that blocked term limits for other offices, such as clerks of court.

The rulings are expected to have a broader impact on other elections in 10 charter counties, which are allowed more leeway in their election procedures.

Charters in at least 10 counties -- Broward, Brevard, Clay, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange, Palm Beach, Polk, Sarasota and Volusia -- include term limits for commissioners, according to a court filing by the Florida Association of Counties.

More than 80 percent of Broward voters in 2000 approved limiting county commissioners to three consecutive four-year terms, but resident William Telli later filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the limits.

In 2002, justices ruled 4-3 that term limits could not be imposed on some county offices that are outlined in the Constitution -- clerk of court, sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser and elections supervisor. The court this week receded from that opinion.

The court said then that term limits were a form of disqualifying candidates that was not allowed in the Constitution. Two current justices, R. Fred Lewis and Barbara Pariente, were in the majority in 2002.

FORECLOSURES:

The court's oral argument docket was jammed with high-profile cases this week including a case to determine whether lenders caught forging documents can escape scrutiny by simply dismissing the foreclosure case.

The decision could reopen thousands of cases in which mortgage holders and their law firms allegedly falsified documents to speed up foreclosures. It could also serve as a template for actions in other states where courts play an integral role in the foreclosure process.

Roman Pino purchased a home in 2006. Two years later he fell behind in his payments and the bank began foreclosure proceedings. During the proceedings, Pino's attorney discovered that the law firm handling the lender's case had backdated documents and forged signatures.

When it became known, the bank dropped the foreclosure case and then refiled it with the appropriate paperwork.

Pino's trial attorney argued that the second lawsuit should be dropped as a sanction for producing fraudulent documents in the first trial. Both the trial court and 4th District Court of Appeal rejected the appeal.

The implications are huge and justices appeared wary of making a decision that would revisit thousands of claims made since the housing bubble burst in 2008.

Following a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Kentucky case, the high court also took up a trio of cases addressing how much attorneys must advise clients who are not U.S. citizens that their decision on how to plead could have them deported.

The cases come two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Padilla v. Kentucky that attorneys must advise noncitizen clients about the deportation risks of a guilty plea.

The ruling has sparked a flurry of cases from defendants who are not U.S. citizens and whose cases were decided before Padilla or while the Kentucky case was working its way through the court. Nearly 50 Florida cases have already been filed.

Among the issues the state high court faces is whether or not the Padilla decision was significant enough to require that the law be applied retroactively.

A lawyer in the attorney general's office argued for the state that Florida has since 1989 had a rule that defense attorneys must advise their clients that deportation may be a consequence of a guilty verdict.

But attorneys for the defendants argue that a more definitive warning needs to be given,


VOTING RANKS DRAW QUESTIONS:

State election officials say as many as 180,000 ineligible voters may be on the state rolls as attention again turns to voter fraud in a critical swing state.

When matching voter rolls against newly available citizenship data from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, election officials found that number of possible matches, and began further investigating each one to see if they were likely to be wrongly registered to vote.

Officials reported earlier this week that they had forwarded the first batch of those names, about 2,600, to local supervisors of elections for further review and for each voter to be notified that they were on a list of people suspected of being illegally registered.

Some Democrats and voting rights groups have criticized the new effort to find suspected ineligible voters. An ACLU official said this week that state officials were looking for cover while trying to disenfranchise voters.

Many of those identified so far have been in South Florida. Local media in Miami reported this week that the supervisor in Miami-Dade County had been sent about 2,000 of the 2,600 initially identified suspect voters.

Sen. Nan Rich, the outgoing leader of Democrats in the Senate and a candidate for governor, said as much energy should be spent on making it easier for voters to cast ballots.

"I certainly support an initiative that would remove people from the voter rolls that are not eligible to vote," Rich said. "But we've had so much effort to suppress the vote. It would be nice if we put this much effort into making sure those who are eligible to vote can vote."

FAMU:

Chancellor Frank Brogan called on Florida A&M University to continue the suspension of its Marching 100 band, saying that the band should remain idle until investigations into hazing and other matters are resolved.

Brogan's announcement came the same day that longtime director Julian White announced his retirement. White, 71, had been on administrative leave since Robert Champion's death.

Both announcements came after revelations earlier in the week that nearly a quarter of the marching band aren't even FAMU students, an apparent breach of university policy that could potentially lead to sanctions by governing bodies.

Champion, 26, was allegedly beaten to death in a ritual hazing on board a charter bus during a band trip to Orlando in November. His death prompted university officials to suspend activities of the vaunted marching band while the investigation continued.

In a letter to the board of trustees, FAMU president James Ammons suggested he was considering allowing the band to resume its activities. The band has been inactive since shortly after Champion's death.

Brogan said he supports the university, "but at the same time, our concerns continue to mount regarding the ever-increasing body of issues that harm the institution, its students and, therefore, our State University System as a whole."

FAMU officials plan to meet Monday to discuss their next move in the case.

SCOTT POPULARITY UP IN POLL:

A Suffolk University/WSVN-Miami poll released this week shows the governor's favorability rating climbing 7 percentage points since the last poll in January.

The survey of likely voters showed 42 percent approved of Scott's job as governor, while 44 percent disapproved; in late January, the survey found 35 percent approval and 45 percent disapproval.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida Supreme Court upholds term limits for local officials.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Reinstating the band prior to these issues being resolved would sidestep efforts under way, which could impact the band's long-term survival." -- Florida Chancellor Frank Brogan in a letter to FAMU board of trustees urging them to keep the Marching 100 suspended until investigations into the death of drum major Robert Champion and financial inconsistencies with the band are resolved.

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