Florida's newly drawn political boundaries jumped critical hurdles this week that will now allow candidates to gear up campaigns knowing they are spending hard-earned campaign contributions on actual approved districts.
Separate court rulings found mapmakers adhered to requirements of the Fair Districts amendments and satisfied Justice Department requirements regarding voter access and now put all three Republican-backed efforts that much closer to finality.
Also moving toward closure, Florida officials announced the arrests of 13 people in the hazing death of a 26-year-old Florida A&M "Marching 100" drum major while a separate task force began looking into the circumstances surrounding the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Sanford and whether the state's "Stand Your Ground" rule needs to be changed.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott denied a plea by Tampa's mayor to relax state restrictions that are preventing local officials from adopting stricter no-gun policies for the upcoming Republican National Convention in August.
While saying no to Tampa, the governor said yes to an insurance industry bill that backers say will help rein in fraud and tamp down abuse in Florida's no-fault automobile insurance market.
CIRCUIT JUDGE APPROVES GOP-DRAWN CONGRESSIONAL MAPS:
With races heating up and candidates champing at the bit, a Leon County circuit judge this week again sided with Republicans by saying opponents had failed to make their case that the Legislature violated new anti-gerrymandering standards in the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional districts.
The ruling by Judge Terry Lewis in Tallahassee was the latest in a series of significant victories for the GOP in the battle over new political boundaries. Days earlier, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the Legislature's second attempt at drawing a map for the state Senate.
Lewis rejected a plea from the Florida Democratic Party to throw out congressional maps the Democrats said clashed with the constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2010 requiring that districts be compact and drawn to no party or candidate's advantage.
In one of the most-watched districts of the congressional case -- the sprawling Northeast Florida district represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown -- Lewis conceded that the lines do not gel with many of the standards set out in the Fair Districts standards.
But he said opponents had not yet made the case that the district could have been redrawn to better respect those standards while still providing black voters in the area the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.
"Without a finding that the map as draw is unconstitutional, I do not have the authority to replace it with another map while the case is pending," Lewis wrote.
Lewis' ruling came the same day that the U.S. Department of Justice approved political maps for a handful of Florida counties that must receive federal approval because of a checkered history of racial discrimination going back to the 1960s.
Thirteen people were charged this week in the hazing death of Robert Champion, a 26-year-old drum major for Florida A&M University whose death shook the university and led to the suspension of its vaunted "Marching 100."
Eleven people were each charged with a single count of hazing resulting in death, a third-degree felony, and two counts of hazing, a first-degree misdemeanor, according to information released by the office of State Attorney Lawson Lamar. Two more people were each charged with a single count of hazing. The felony charges could bring on six-year prison terms.
Champion, 26, was beaten to death in a ritual hazing on board a charter bus during a band trip to Orlando in November. Since then, two faculty members were recently forced out in connection with another, unrelated hazing incident at the historically black university. In a joint statement, Solomon Badger, FAMU board chairman, and James Ammons, president, highlighted steps the school has taken since Champion's death to crack down on hazing.
"We are vigorously working to eradicate hazing from FAMU and doing everything within our power to ensure an incident like this never happens again," they said.
STAND YOUR GROUND:
A task force set up following the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February held its first organizational meeting this week in preparation for a series of public hearings to be held throughout the state.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, chair of a public safety task force charged with reviewing Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, moved quickly at the group's first meeting to dispel criticism that it was stacked with pro-gun members. "Before the task force had even convened its first meeting, the press had already speculated what we will and will not do," Carroll said. "They have already discounted this task force as politically unbalanced."
She said that aside from four current or former lawmakers who voted for "Stand Your Ground" -- Carroll, House sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland and a co-sponsor, and Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando -- she had no idea how the other 15 members of the Citizen Safety and Protection Task Force felt about the controversial statute.
Scott formed the panel after the Feb. 26 shooting of Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, 28, attracted national attention, including sparking marches as far away as New York and California. Zimmerman claimed he shot the unarmed Martin, an African-American, in self-defense and his lawyers have cited the "Stand Your Ground" law allowing individuals to use deadly force if they feel threatened.
The panel will take public testimony at future meetings. The next will be June 12 in Sanford.
SCOTT STANDS HIS GROUND ON GUN LAWS:
Gov. Rick Scott this week stuck to his guns as he declined a request from Tampa's mayor to ban firearms from the city's downtown for the Republican National Convention in August.
Responding to a request by Mayor Bob Buckhorn to temporarily suspend Florida statutes prohibiting local gun laws stricter than the state's, Scott said conventions and firearms go way back and he found no reason to change that now. "You note that the city's temporary (security) ordinance regulates 'sticks, poles, and water guns,' but that firearms are a 'noticeable item missing from the city's temporary ordinance," Scott said in a letter. "Firearms are noticeably included, however, in the Second Amendment."
Tampa city officials have been urging the governor to temporarily suspend the state law so that a wider no-gun perimeter could be established in downtown Tampa, including areas that will be used by protesters during the four-day event that begins Aug. 27. "Our fundamental right to keep and bear arms has coexisted with those freedoms for as long, and I see no reason to depart from that tradition this year," Scott concluded.
The governor, as expected, signed legislation Friday to make a series of changes to the state's no-fault insurance policy regulations. Business groups hailed the signing of HB 119, which sets up tough licensing requirements for clinics and health care providers handling patients treated following automobile crashes.
Backers say personal injury protection, or PIP, insurance is riddled with fraud. Scott made it a legislative priority and was successful in helping pull together and end-of-session deal between the two chambers. The major provisions of the law kick in Jan. 1.
NOT QUITE AN OZZIE GUILLEN MOMENT:
No, he doesn't love Fidel Castro, but Gov. Rick Scott set off a torrent of scorn from the Cuban community in South Florida even though it occurred while he was signing a bill to further discourage trade with Cuba and Syria. Despite an accompanying letter in which he outlined "the shameful record of the Castro and Assad governments," Scott made the mistake of saying that he'll have to wait for federal approval before the state law can go into effect. However legally defensible, the comment didn't sit well with South Florida legislative delegates. Scott then said he'll stand by the July 1 effective date and presumably will enforce the law until it is challenged in court.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The "Stand Your Ground" task force began meeting to look at the self-defense law in the wake of the February shooting of Trayvon Martin, which has gripped the state like few other crimes.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I was so p----- off when I saw the salary Tiffany Carr was making It's absolutely stone-a-insane." Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, speaking to the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald regarding the $350,000 compensation package for Carr, president of the Florida Coalition of Domestic Violence.