Politics

Weekly Roundup: Looking for Answers

By: Brandon Larrabee News Service of Florida | Posted: July 12, 2014 3:55 AM
Leon County Circuit Court

Leon County Circuit Court

Everyone in Tallahassee seemed to be looking for solutions this week.

After Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis threw out two of the state's congressional districts, lawyers and politicos were left trying to find out what the ruling meant and how to repair the damage.

Meanwhile, the state's prison system was looking for a fix to a spate of bad stories about suspicious deaths of prisoners in the agency's custody. By the end of the week, the head of one prison had been suspended and the secretary of the Department of Corrections was promising to do more if necessary.

Even the question of how to grow marijuana was getting stuck in the regulatory thicket, as the Department of Health and the nascent pot industry argued over the regulations that will guide the farming of a version of the plant meant to help with some health problems.


BATTLE LINES REDRAWN?

Candidates are already out on the trail and making their cases for re-election. But at least some of them might face a new group of voters -- if not this November, then in two years. In a highly anticipated ruling, or at least a ruling closely watched in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., a Leon County judge struck down a map of the state's congressional districts drawn by the Legislature in 2012.

The decision marked the first time a judge had considered whether the state's congressional map was valid under the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts constitutional amendments, approved by voters in 2010. The answer, according to Lewis, was that a district held by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown and one represented by Republican Congressman Daniel Webster fell short.

According to Lewis, lawmakers and the staff members charged with the once-a-decade redistricting process tried to shield the map drawers from political influence, even as Republican political consultants tried to find a way to manipulate the process.

"That being said, the circumstantial evidence introduced at trial convinces me that the political operatives managed to find other avenues, other ways to infiltrate and influence the Legislature, to obtain the necessary cooperation and collaboration to ensure that their plan was realized, at least in part," Lewis wrote. "They managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent. There is just too much circumstantial evidence of it, too many coincidences, for me to conclude otherwise."

Those most directly affected by the ruling were grappling with the fallout. Twice, Brown lashed out at Lewis, saying that her district needed to retain its largely African-American population base.

"Overturning the current District 5 map ignores the essential redistricting principle of maintaining communities of interest or minority access districts," she said. "Certainly, minority communities do not live in compact, cookie-cutter-like neighborhoods, and excessive adherence to district 'compactness,' while ignoring the maintenance of minority access districts, fragments minority communities across the state."

While he declared unconstitutional the map that was approved by the Legislature, Lewis did not specifically say what would need to be done to fix it. He could redraw the lines himself or order lawmakers to do it.

Brown is considered relatively safe no matter what happens to the lines. But Webster and GOP Congressman John Mica could see Democratic-leaning voters shifted into their Central Florida districts -- giving Democrats some of the gains they wanted when they pushed the Fair Districts amendments four years ago.

"It's not like a four- or five-seat change in the process," said Steve Schale, a Democratic political strategist. "But you take two seats that were out of play, and you put them in play, that's going to have an impact."


CORRECTIONS UNDER FIRE:

While Lewis was ruling on the future of the state's political system, the past of one state agency could soon be headed to the court system as well. And the issues there were matters of life and death.

The Florida Department of Corrections continued to take fire this week over the deaths of prisoners, with the agency's secretary placing Dade Correctional Institution Warden Jerry Cummings on administrative leave.

Secretary Mike Crews took the action during a visit to the Florida City prison, where an inmate died in 2012 under questionable circumstances. Miami-Dade police are already investigating the death of Darren Rainey, an inmate who died after guards allegedly forced him to shower in scalding hot water as punishment.

"I am troubled by the allegations surrounding Dade Correctional Institution and feel a change at the facility is necessary for restoring accountability across the department," Crews said in a release Thursday. "This morning I also met with correctional officers in the facility and underscored that the integrity of the department will not be compromised by any bad actions."

DOC has been under fire for weeks following media reports, largely those in The Miami Herald, about the suspicious deaths of inmates.

Crews' trip came after four investigators for the department filed a lawsuit against the agency, saying they were essentially punished for calling attention to an inaccurate report about an inmate's death.

The suit, filed this week, also names as defendants Gov. Rick Scott's Office of the Inspector General, Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel and an assistant, and two high-ranking officials at the Department of Corrections.

It alleges that the four employees bringing the claim -- Aubrey Land, David Clark, Doug Glisson and John Ulm -- have faced retaliation for raising questions about the investigation into the death of an inmate. The punishment includes two of the four facing their own internal-affairs investigation.

"The plaintiffs have alleged that, as a result of the exercise of their rights under the First Amendment, they have been subject to ongoing retaliation in the form of false and unwarranted internal affairs complaints which, in all likelihood, will continue unless injunctive relief is granted by this court," the suit says.


BUZZ KILLS:

Of all the groups that seem least likely to get upset over the actions of state government, those involved with the marijuana industry would seem to top the list. After all, the leafy green substance is supposed to help people relax, right?

Instead, regulators heard an earful early this week from growers, lawyers and lobbyists seeking to rake in some green from Florida's new pot industry during a standing-room-only, rule-making workshop.

At the top of the complaint list: concerns about a proposed lottery system to award five organizations the chance to grow, manufacture and dispense a type of medical marijuana approved by Florida's Republican-dominated Legislature this spring.

But complaints touched on other issues, such as the number of dispensaries. Department of Health General Counsel Jennifer Tschetter said the agency's preliminary plan was to limit the number of dispensaries to five as outlined in the law and to bar dispensaries from shipping or transporting the final product.

The state needs "way more than five" dispensaries, and the nursery locations are "very inconvenient for the patient populations," said Kerry Herndon, owner of Apopka-based Kerry's Nursery.

Florida's new law makes legal in Florida certain strains of marijuana that are low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD. The law specifically limits the composition of the seeds, plants and final product, usually an oil or paste, to no more than 0.8 percent THC and at least 10 percent CBD.

The combination is purported to eliminate or dramatically reduce life-threatening seizures in children with severe epilepsy. The law also allows patients who suffer from severe muscle spasms or cancer to be put on a "compassionate use registry" for the low-THC product as long as their doctors approve.

DOH planned to use a lottery to select single dispensing organizations in regions where more than one application was submitted, but lobbyists and growers complained that the state would be putting epileptic children and other patients at risk by failing to ensure that the most capable organizations would be responsible for crafting the substance they ingest.

"This process … seems to reward the promise to perform better than the ability to perform," said lobbyist Louis Rotundo, who represents the Florida Medical Cannabis Association.

Department spokesman Nathan Dunn told reporters after the meeting that the agency would consider revising the rule to do away with the lottery and that the agency has fast-tracked regulations regarding the law, signed by Scott last month.


STORY OF THE WEEK: Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis strikes down the state's new congressional districts as unconstitutional, potentially throwing the state's political future into turmoil.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Very quietly." -- Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, when asked how marijuana plants will get into the state to help establish a type of medical marijuana approved by the Legislature this spring.




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