- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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April 3

Tampa Bay Times on term limits for appellate judges and justices:

Taking a hard swipe at an independent judiciary, the Florida House has passed a constitutional amendment that would ask voters to impose term limits on appellate judges and state Supreme Court justices. This is retribution masquerading as reform, and it would produce judges who are less qualified, less independent and less likely to withstand political pressure. The Senate should reject this blatant assault on the courts.

The House needed 72 votes last week to pass the amendment. It got 73, all Republicans. The measure, HJR 1, would be the first of its kind in the country and force appellate judges and justices out of office after 12 years. For judicial term limits to become part of the Florida Constitution, the amendment would have to pass the Senate and then win at least 60 percent of the vote in the November 2018 general election. This is a partisan attack on a nonpartisan branch of government, and the Republican rhetoric about state judges serving for life glosses over the details.

First, the retirement age for justices and appellate judges is 70 years old. Second, they also face merit retention votes by the voters every six years. Those are largely formalities, but those votes are designed to remove judges who are unethical or have otherwise proven themselves unfit - not to oust judges because their legal decisions may be unpopular. The long-term appointments bring stability, consistency and institutional knowledge to the highest levels of the court system, insulate judges from changing political winds and promote the very independence Republican lawmakers find so irritating.

Yet after a string of legal losses, House Republicans have decided the courts have become too “activist.” Recent state court rulings have invalidated GOP-driven laws covering workers’ compensation, abortion rights, capital punishment and redistricting. So now Republican lawmakers are complaining that the legislative branch of government has lost too much power to the judicial branch.

The term limits amendment isn’t their only weapon. Last month, the House passed a bill, HB 301, on a party-line vote that would require the Florida Supreme Court to annually list for the Legislature each case where it has not made a decision for 180 days and to explain why - as if the justices have to defend decisions to lawmakers across the street from the Supreme Court. A bill passed by the Senate and likely to be passed by the House, SB 128, would shift the burden of proof to prosecutors in “stand your ground” immunity hearings - a direct shot at a 2015 state Supreme Court opinion. In debating another ill-conceived bill that would enhance penalties for undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes, House members have practically dared the Supreme Court to find it unconstitutional, despite evidence from other states that it most likely would be unconstitutional.

The Florida Bar, business interests and lawyers on the right and left oppose term limits for appellate judges and justices. They convincingly argue that the brightest trial judges and lawyers will not seek appointments to the appellate bench if they could be pushed out before age 60 and have to start over with no clients or law practice. A constant churn of appellate judges because of term limits also makes no sense. For the damage term limits can cause look no further than the Legislature, where eight-year term limits have created a lack of institutional knowledge, an obsession with short-term thinking, constant campaigning and inexperienced lawmakers holding powerful positions long before they are ready.

Florida’s court system already has become too politicized by the partisan manipulation of the judicial nominating commissions that screen judicial candidates for the governor to consider. Term limits for appellate judges and Supreme Court justices would make that situation even worse, and the Senate should reject this constitutional amendment. If it doesn’t, it will be up to voters next year to stand up for an independent judiciary.

Online:

https://www.tampabay.com

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April 2

The Ledger of Lakeland on the state’s budget for marketing its agricultural products:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran have an old-fashioned political donnybrook going over the state budget.

A dispute that started primarily over corporate incentives - or welfare, as Corcoran sees it - has spread to other parts of Florida’s 2018 spending plan. Overall, as the horse trading now begins in earnest, the House and the governor are $2.3 billion apart, while the Senate sides largely with Scott.

So as lawmakers focus on the nitty gritty, it’s time to start fretting over some of the collateral damage. We got a small taste of that last week.

As The Ledger reported, the House proposal slashes the state’s budget for marketing its agricultural products - a campaign known as Fresh From Florida - from $12.9 million to $2 million, or 84 percent.

The Senate is more generous to the state’s farmers. Its plan includes $5.8 million for the marketing initiative, a cut of “only” 55 percent.

Thankfully at this point, the Florida Department of Citrus appears to have skirted taking a major revenue hit from another source. Lawmakers so far have not shown an indication to reel in $5 million from general tax dollars that were provided to the department last year - believed to be, barring a historic catastrophe, the only time in the department’s 82-year history that citrus growers turned to taxpayers for help.

Retaining that helps as citrus production, particularly of oranges, hits the lowest level in decades.

As for the overall marketing budget, state Rep. Neil Combee told The Ledger that the reductions were tied to an anticipated drop in tax revenues.

Still, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Bartow native and a one-time citrus grower, was not amused.

“This is a political assault on a good program that will have real consequences on real people,” Putnam said last week in a statement.

“Gutting the Fresh From Florida program will hurt Florida’s small farms the most - their ability to raise awareness for the high quality of their locally grown products and compete against lesser quality products from foreign countries.”

We understand the competing arguments offered by Scott and Corcoran.

On one hand, as the House sees it, the requisite belt-tightening means nothing is off the table, and it’s hard to justify keeping inflated a small program like Fresh From Florida when other major programs also face the cleaver.

Yet Gov. Scott clearly believes you must spend money to make money.

And both sides can plausibly claim that this is a minuscule expense in an estimated $82 billion budget, and so it will not be a major matter if it stays or goes.

While we believe the state budget should be pared as much as possible, with the proceeds returned to Florida taxpayers, we tend to side with the governor on this line item.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida and California produce the largest amounts and widest varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables in America. Many consumers may not care where those goods come from. But some of them do, as do growers.

And while it might be nice to think those products can sell themselves - after sunshine and beaches, what thing is associated with Florida more than oranges? - we need a method for convincing the decision-makers at the wholesale or retail level to buy from Florida.

Fresh From Florida helped do that. And we argue as citrus greening, for example, ravages our groves, or as Mexican tomatoes flow into our stores, that we also need a way to convince consumers that Florida’s agricultural industry remains vibrant.

The guiding principle here comes courtesy of the late Steuart Henderson Britt, who mingled stints at advertising agencies with teaching psychology and marketing at George Washington University and Northwestern University.

“Doing business without advertising,” Britt once noted, “is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing but nobody else does.”

We don’t believe Fresh From Florida should be cut. But if so, please join us in urging lawmakers to side with the Senate over the House in funding it as much as possible.

Online:

https://www.theledger.com

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April 4

The Palm Beach Post on Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to reassign cases to a pro-death penalty prosecutor:

Gov. Rick Scott has decided to step up his assault on Aramis Ayala, the state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties who had the audacity to refuse to seek the death penalty for an accused cop killer - or other defendants accused of capital crimes.

After removing her last month from the prosecution of the accused, Markeith Loyd, Scott on Monday - acting “in the interest of justice” - reassigned 21 additional first-degree murder cases to an outspoken death-penalty proponent, Brad King, the Ocala-based state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit.

These executive orders disrespect the sanctity of both the electoral and judicial processes. And Scott should reverse them immediately.

It’s hard to see this as anything but a politically motivated power grab by a governor whose disdain for the traditional checks and balances of government can be palpable - especially when it comes to the judiciary.

Ayala, Florida’s first black elected state attorney, announced last month that she would not seek death for Loyd - accused in the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and the execution-style killing of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton.

Scott’s decision to remove her from the case was swift, coming within hours of her announcement. Nearly as swift was reaction from Republican lawmakers, calling for the governor to remove Ayala from office and reducing her office’s funding. Just Tuesday morning, a group of Central Florida Republicans held a news conference again calling for her removal.

To be sure, Florida lawmakers are still a bit sore about being forced - twice - to pass a bill requiring a unanimous jury vote for the death penalty. Both the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts had struck down the state’s capital punishment system as unconstitutional, making more than half the state’s 400 death row inmates eligible for new sentencing. Likely, many GOP lawmakers saw Ayala’s decision as another slap in the face.

But that’s their problem. They should understand that prosecutors have broad discretionary power. That’s why every first-degree murder case is not a death penalty case. Aggravating circumstance also must be present.

We don’t necessarily agree with Ayala’s position rejecting the death penalty in all cases. But we respect her authority, vested by the voters of the 9th Circuit, to do so. Those same voters - who elected her by a double-digit margin - can remove her from office if she does not represent their views about criminal justice.

That’s the point. The governor would have us believe this is about the death penalty. It’s not. This is about a chief executive’s unprecedented overreach based on a political philosophy.

The law Scott cites, which allows a governor to remove prosecutors from cases if the prosecutors are unfit or if there is a conflict of interest, is also a stretch.

In a statement Monday, Scott said the victims’ families “deserve a state attorney who will take the time to review every individual fact and circumstance before making such an impactful decision.”

They also deserve a state attorney of their own choosing. They deserve a state attorney who’s not fearful of doing what’s best for their constituents by making a politically unpopular decision. And one not subject to knee-jerk reactions.

Ayala cited numerous problems with the death penalty as the basis for her decision, which she said she reached after “extensive and painstaking thought and consideration.”

Nearly 150 law professors, former prosecutors and judges wrote a letter of protest to Scott. They kept it simple. “Florida’s entire criminal justice system is premised on the independence of prosecutors,” they wrote. Ayala “is solely empowered to make prosecutorial decisions for her circuit.”

If the governor is truly genuine about his passion for “justice,” he needs to step back from this dangerously slippery slope.

Online:

https://www.mypalmbeachpost.com

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