- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Oct. 14

The Miami Herald on a recent ruling by the Florida Supreme Court on the death penalty:

The process of sentencing criminals to die in Florida just received another level of difficulty. And that’s as it should be.

On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state’s revised death-penalty law is unconstitutional. It declared that when a jury recommends a sentence of death to a judge, jurors’ decision must be unanimous and a judge does not have the final say. Taking the life of a felon is the ultimate penalty meted out by the state. It’s a decision that should not be made by a jury that is in disagreement.

Justices also struck down a newly enacted law that allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 of 12 jurors recommended it. That one was the result of the Legislature’s attempt to mollify the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this year struck down the state’s law that let a judge overrule a non-unanimous jury recommendation and impose a death sentence. When lawmakers convened to address it, they tacked on the 10-of-12 provision.

The latest ruling basically said, Nope, not good enough, and now triggers the potential re-sentencing of hundreds of Florida inmates on Death Row.

This heightened requirement is fair, especially in a state that has seen the most exonerations of the wrongly convicted. But prosecutors opposed the unanimous-jury decision, saying that not even serial killer Ted Bundy received a one. However, a jury’s job is figuring out the most just penalty, not making prosecutors’ jobs easier.

Justices set them straight: “We conclude that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury mandates that under Florida’s capital sentencing scheme, the jury - not the judge - must be the finder of every fact, and thus every element, necessary for the imposition of the death penalty,” the court wrote in its 5-2 ruling.

Up to now, Florida was the only state among 31 remaining death-penalty states that allowed juries to render advisory verdicts involving both the presence and sufficiency of aggravating circumstances and also recommendations of death by a simple majority vote.

Unfortunately, the latest ruling is a legal Pandora’s Box for the state. What happens now to the nearly 400 convicted killers on Death Row? Some say they now have the right to request a similar unanimity in their death sentencing.

That the courts had to step in highlights Florida’s legislative inaction. In 2013, the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors recommended that there be a comprehensive review of the state’s death-penalty process by all branches of government. Lawmakers fiddled, inmate advocates burned. Nothing was done, and the courts were brought into the picture.

The state Supreme Court’s ruling is the latest in a slow dismantling of the old way Florida has killed those who kill - from the lethal medical cocktail used to the basic guidelines followed. It began in January, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the state’s death-penalty law that allowed a judge to overrule a jury verdict and impose a death sentence.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU in Miami, said the new procedures will reduce the number of death sentences.

But incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran told the Associated Press the ruling is the courts’ ongoing effort to “subvert the will of the people.”

We disagree. In death-penalty cases, the will of a unanimous jury is, indeed, the will of the people.

Online: http://www.miamiherald.com/

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Oct. 16

The Naples Daily News on Amendment 1:

Eye-catching ads call for Floridians to support “one for the sun” to bring more solar to the Sunshine State where it’s sorely lacking.

This is one that Floridians shouldn’t favor, however. We urge a “no” vote on Amendment 1.

If you’re in the dark on how this got on the ballot, here’s a quick review:

Saying it wanted to promote further solar usage in the state, a political action group called Floridians for Solar Choice began collecting signatures required to get an amendment to the Florida Constitution on the ballot. As it did, a rival group, Consumers for Smart Solar, also began collecting signatures. Ultimately, the group with “choice” in its name didn’t get enough signatures to get to a Nov. 8 vote. The group with “smart” in its name did.

That’s Question 1: Why would two groups purportedly wanting to promote the seemingly logical idea of more solar in Florida be pushing competing measures rather than collaborating? We’ve seen the answer unfold as the power companies serving Florida have pumped some $22 million into the “smart” measure that made it to the ballot, and indeed they’ve built a smart campaign with slick TV ads and altruistic catchphrases.

A subsequent step requires the Florida Supreme Court to approve ballot language. The high court voted 4-3 in March to place the amendment on the ballot; justices don’t pass judgment on the merits, just whether it meets the criteria to go to voters.

That’s our second point of concern. The court split by the narrowest of margins to allow the Nov. 8 vote. Compare that with the requirement that 60 percent of voters must support an amendment for it to pass. The reason why three justices opposed allowing a vote is found in the dissenting opinion calling the “ballot title … affirmatively misleading.”

“Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware,” the dissenting opinion states. “Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida’s major investor-owned electric utility companies, actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo.”

If approval simply puts us where we are today, as both sides battling over this amendment seemed to acknowledge in separate meetings with our editorial board, we question why we’re even having a vote.

The constitution

As we noted previously in opposing Amendment 2, we believe the constitution is exclusively to create a general structure for effective government, including the executive, judicial and legislative branches, as well as designating basic rights for citizens.

We supported an Aug. 30 solar-related ballot amendment because it fixed a tax-related hitch in the existing constitution. That differs from this attempt to memorialize in the constitution any method of producing energy, which we view in this case as an attempt by utility companies to further secure their service area monopolies.

Rights placed in the constitution should be done so permanently, and with emerging technology, who is to say now where energy production will lead in the future?

Had the first group succeeded with its version of an amendment, we’d have raised the same constitutional concern. Interestingly, an advocate for the first group - not funded by utilities - told our editorial board they may not pursue it further rather than trying to get on the 2018 ballot.

Legislature

The first group’s approach was preferable in that it would allow residents to lease solar equipment to generate their own power, and allow for any excess to be sold to nearby properties. Only Florida and three other states prohibit such agreements.

On balance, for those solar consumers who would remain connected to the power company’s grid for backup, we’d concur the utility should be able to charge a reasonable fee for grid access. Any added costs of providing backup accessibility to the grid shouldn’t be shifted onto other consumers.

So, with the status quo in effect, we’d suggest it falls to the Legislature to further open the market to leased solar equipment. Florida has some 12,000 customer-owned systems. In a sunny state of about 20 million people, that’s a shame.

Amendment 1, however, isn’t the answer. Vote “no.”

Online: http://www.naplesnews.com/

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Oct. 18

The Ledger of Lakeland on a judge’s ruling on voting laws:

We applaud Gov. Rick Scott for abiding by a judge’s ruling and for expressing a willingness to work with lawmakers to create a more flexible registration deadline during declared states of emergency.

As the 2016 election chugs toward the finish line, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee has boldly inserted himself into Florida’s election process.

The judge, appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, has of late shot down two aspects of the state’s voting laws by upholding complaints raised by the Florida Democratic Party.

If Republican Donald Trump’s recent struggles continue to cause his campaign to falter, the election may wind up a rout for Democrat Hillary Clinton, which would make Walker’s decisions anti-climactic.

Yet if Trump is running stronger than pollsters believe - a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed Trump trailing Clinton by just four percentage points - or if Clinton stumbles badly in the waning days, Walker’s findings could have significant influence on the outcome, for which Clinton’s campaign could give thanks if she manages to take Florida.

Walker’s first decision was to heed the Democratic Party’s request to extend the voter registration deadline until 5 p.m. today. Originally, that was set for Oct. 11 because, under Florida law, voters must register to vote at least 29 days before an election.

The Democratic Party maintained that when Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency as Hurricane Matthew bore down on Florida, with numerous government offices closing and with an estimated 1.5 million people along the Atlantic Coast encouraged to seek shelter inland, many who fled were denied an opportunity to register to vote.

Scott, who strongly supports Trump, initially said he would not extend the deadline because he thought people already had sufficient time to register. The governor’s office also said he could not make that decision unilaterally.

Walker agreed that Scott was likely not the correct person to be sued, but disputed that his administration could not extend the deadline. Walker indicated failure to do so was unconstitutional, even though state law says nothing one way or the other.

Despite that, we concur with the judge’s decision. Because of Trump, whether you are for or against him, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, runner-up to Clinton in the Democratic primary, interest and passions are running high. People should have as much time as possible to have a say in the outcome.

Yet we also applaud Gov. Scott for abiding by the ruling and for expressing a willingness to work with lawmakers to create a more flexible registration deadline for such circumstances in the future. Allowing extra time during a declared state of emergency is fitting.

Judge Walker’s second ruling, delivered Sunday, ordered election officials to allow voters who submit mail-in ballots but whose signatures do not match the one on file with county elections supervisors to fix the situation before Election Day.

If you receive a mail-in ballot and forget to sign it before returning it, you have an opportunity to do so by submitting an affidavit that you neglected to autograph the ballot and by providing either picture identification or documentation that shows your name and address.

Walker said it made no sense to not allow people whose signatures differ the same opportunity, and blatantly and pointedly accused state officials of denying voters their rights. Florida “has categorically disenfranchised thousands of voters arguably for no reason other than they have poor handwriting or their handwriting has changed over time,” the judge wrote in his order. The state also has “consistently chipped away at the right to vote,” Walker added, partly through “a crazy quilt of conflicting and diverging procedures” that demonstrate “complete lack of uniformity.”

That’s a bit strong, and largely unsubstantiated. So, a few points here.

First, there is a good reason to allow someone who did not sign a mail-in ballot to do so. As the law allows, they can appear in person and prove who they are. Judge Walker wrote that granting the same privilege to those with disputable signatures will reduce voter fraud for the same reason. We hope he’s right, because studies show that mail-in ballots are the prime source of voter fraud activity.

But this law has been around since 2004. Why are we just hearing about fixing it now? How do we know the small fraction of ballots rejected in the 2012 presidential race for dubious signatures - less than one-quarter of 1 percent - weren’t phony?

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became the first to declare for this presidential election - 19 months ago. By law state and county election officials are required to remind people to update their signatures each general election year and whenever sending correspondence to registered voters.

At some point the individual voter has to take some responsibility for being prepared to decide who runs their country, state, county, or city. Judicial meddling in duly enacted laws seems to detract from a citizen’s obligation. Worse, it might fuel Trump’s accusation that the election is “rigged.”

Online: http://www.theledger.com/

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