Florida Supreme Court strikes 3 GOP-backed amendments from Nov. 2 ballot

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Dara Kam

Published September 5, 2010

The Florida Supreme Court struck a blow to the GOP-dominated legislature Tuesday by stripping three proposed constitutional amendments off the November ballot, ruling they were confusing to voters.

The decisions upheld lower-court rulings that had previously struck down proposals dealing with the new federal health care law, redistricting and property tax breaks for first-time home-buyers.

The state's highest court was the last stop for three of the six amendments put on the Nov. 2 ballot by the Florida Legislature. Those three now have no chance of getting on the ballot. A challenge against a fourth that would water down class-size restriction is still pending in court.

The rulings are the latest in which the court has asked lawmakers "not to play games when it comes time to write amendments," said Ron Meyer, a constitutional lawyer who argued against Amendment 7, the legislature's redistricting amendment. "Stop hiding the ball. Stop wordsmithing. Be direct. In the words of the statute, be clear and unambiguous."

But Republican legislative leaders criticized the rulings, saying the court overstepped its authority.

"The legislative branch has the express power to offer amendments to the people. For the judicial branch to be independent, impartial, and apolitical, it must respect the legislative branch's clear and unambiguous constitutional powers. Unfortunately, the Court failed to do that with respect to Amendment 7," said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, who will take over as House Speaker after the Nov. 2 election.

All three opinions were 5-2 decisions, with Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissenting. Both were appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, who recently left the Republican Party to run as an independent for U.S. Senator.

In the case of Amendment 9, which lawmakers named "Health Care Freedom," the court ruled as it did in the other two cases that the ballot language was "misleading."

The ballot summary told voters it would "ensure access to health care services without waiting lists, protect the doctor-patient relationship, (and) guard against mandates that don't work" but the measure itself did not contain language specifically addressing those issues, the court ruled.

Echoing critics' charges that Republican leaders put the question on the ballot to draw conservatives to vote in November, Meyer said "it was political rhetoric, not a clear and unambiguous ballot summary."

But Senate President-elect Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, said, "Amendment 9 was the Legislature's attempt to ask the people of Florida if they wanted the federal government to control their health care or if taxpayers should have the freedom to be in control of their own health care. Once again the Court feels it would be better not to allow voters to make such a decision."

The court also tossed the lawmakers' redistricting proposal, Amendment 7, finding that it lacked crucial information telling voters that, if passed, lawmakers would no longer be required to craft districts that are contiguous.

In a related ruling Tuesday, the court decided that two citizens' initiatives on redistricting will remain on the ballot. Known as the "Fair Districts" amendments, Amendments 5 and 6, are aimed at preventing lawmakers from gerrymandering, or drawing districts that favor incumbents or political parties.

Amendment 7 was the response from Republican legislative leaders, who said the Fair District amendments could jeopardize districts drawn to ensure that minorities are elected. Cannon, who personally defended Amendment 7, said it "clarified" the other amendments.

"If you want to talk about misleading and confusing, that to me describes the two Fair Districts amendments. It's impossible to implement those amendments," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a lawyer who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and serves on the reapportionment committee.

Democrats and the NAACP, which filed the lawsuit challenging Amendment 7, accused the legislature of trying to undermine the Fair Districts amendments.

The third amendment eliminiated by the court, Amendment 3, would have given additional, temporary tax breaks to first-time home buyers, but was challenged by a group of citizens and labor unions. The court upheld a previous ruling that found the summary lacked details about the tax break, including the effective date.

Barry Richard, who represented Amendment 3 opponents, said, "These judges are not judges that go out and do all kinds of crazy things or legislate. This is a pretty prudent, middle of the road court. What I think this reflects is not an activist court. What it reflects is a lack of care on writing amendments."

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