The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once said: “History never really says goodbye. It says, ‘See you later.’ “
In Florida this week, history made good on any promises to return. The state found itself facing a likely lawsuit over a controversial new law on public schools. Another court struck down a recent change to the state’s self-defense laws.
The machinery of death creaked back to life after an 18-month legal hiatus, with Gov. Rick Scott issuing a warrant that will almost certainly revive a battle over drugs the state uses in lethal injections.
A gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe that seemed to be frozen suddenly lurched back into the spotlight, with Scott and the tribe announcing a deal that lawmakers regarded warily.
The week’s news environment included one slightly new element, as Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner weighed a request from a presidential commission to turn over potentially sensitive information about Florida voters. But with Democrats already gearing up for a fight over the commission’s findings, that too might be a bit of history that returns later.
CAN I HAVE YOUR NUMBER?
By the time Detzner announced Thursday that the state would provide some of the information requested by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a line of Democrats had demanded he not do so.
All three of the party’s candidates for governor in 2018 bashed the commission — which Democrats see as a precursor to a round of voter suppression — and every day seemed to bring a new letter from a lawmaker or party official calling on the state to say no.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, running against former Congresswoman Gwen Graham and Winter Park businessman Chris King in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, went a step further. Gillum used an open-records request to challenge Detzner to reveal any proof of the voter fraud that Republican President Donald Trump has claimed occurred in 2016.
“Not only does this (federal voter information) request violate the privacy and security of Floridians, but it is founded on baseless claims of widespread voter fraud,” Gillum said in a statement. “If he fails to produce any evidence — which I suspect he will — then he should break his public silence and formally deny the Trump Commission’s request for Floridians’ personal data.”
Detzner did break his silence — though state officials had pointed out that Florida had until July 14 to respond — by saying he would give the commission any information available to the public.
“Driver’s license information and Social Security numbers are not, and cannot be provided,” Detzner wrote to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is vice chairman of the federal commission. “We will also not release any information that is exempt or confidential under Florida law, including certain information regarding law enforcement officers, judges, prosecutors, and victims of stalking and domestic violence.”
Information such as voters’ names, addresses, dates of birth, party affiliations and voting histories is already available under Florida’s public-records law and will be provided to the commission.
That wasn’t enough of a rejection for some Democrats, despite the fact that commission officials likely could have compelled the state to turn over the same information with an open-records request of their own.
“Secretary Ken Detzner should not be fulfilling any part of Donald Trump’s request. … It is grossly irresponsible for Secretary Detzner to even entertain a request from a commission that is propagating a blatant lie — widespread voter fraud does not exist,” Democratic Party spokeswoman Johanna Cervone said.
DEAL US IN
Despite failing to pass a gambling package in this year’s legislative session, lawmakers left Tallahassee figuring they would return to the issue later. But a court agreement between the Scott administration and the Seminole Tribe submitted to a federal judge Wednesday could change that expectation, at least to some extent.
The agreement focuses on a portion of a 20-year gambling deal, called a “compact,” that expired in 2015. That portion of the deal involves banked card games such as blackjack. Under the deal, approved in 2010, the tribe guaranteed $1 billion in payments to the state for the exclusive rights to offer the banked card games for five years.
The tribe sued the state when the banked-card portion of the deal expired, accusing state gambling officials of breaching the compact by allowing what are known as “designated player” card games at horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons.
In the agreement released Wednesday, the state agreed to drop its appeal of the federal court decision and to take “aggressive enforcement action” against pari-mutuels operating banked card games that violate state law.
The deal also frees up at least $200 million in payments to the state, something leaders — including Scott — are eager to tap into as Florida’s budget outlook worsens.
Even so, Scott’s settlement with the Seminoles took legislative leaders by surprise.
“At first blush, I’m not sure that the stipulated settlement agreement does anything more than make it more difficult for us going forward to negotiate gaming with the Seminole Tribe,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who’s been in charge of gambling negotiations. “It’s almost as if we’re guaranteeing for the tribe that the status quo will continue for the balance of the compact.”
Not that the Scott administration is likely to get out of court anytime soon. On the same day that the gambling settlement was announced, the Broward County School Board voted unanimously to move forward with a lawsuit challenging a sweeping new education law.
Broward County expects to be followed by other districts — including Miami-Dade County — in mounting a challenge to the law.
The legislation (HB 7069), signed by Scott last month, would overhaul a vast swath of state education law. It deals with everything from mandatory recess for elementary school students and standardized testing to charter-school funding and teacher bonuses.
In a memo given to the Broward County board ahead of the meeting, the board’s general counsel outlined five grounds to challenge the 278-page, $419 million measure.
“This is the opportunity for us to start chiseling away at state legislators who don’t put the voter and the children in this state first. … I feel it’s really our time to step up to the bat and say, ‘enough is enough,’ ” said Ann Murray, a member of the board.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who was a driving force behind the legislation, responded by blasting the board.
“This is another example of the educational bureaucracy putting the adults who administer the schools ahead of the children who attend the schools,” he said. “Not only is it clueless, it is also arguably heartless, to sue to stop school children from getting recess, disabled children from getting funding, poor children from getting out of failure factories and teachers from getting more pay.”
GANJA AND GUNS
Other actions from the legislative session faced court challenges of their own. Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, the virtual godfather of medical marijuana in Florida, challenged a new law carrying out a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized pharmacological pot. The challenge focuses on part of the law that wouldn’t allow patients to smoke the product.
Lawmakers banned smoking marijuana — but allowed patients to vaporize, or “vape,” pot products — in a bill approved during a special session last month. Scott signed the bill, which went into effect last week.
“The people of Florida knew exactly what they were voting on, when they voted. When they were voting on it, the vast majority, if not 100 percent, knew that smoke was included. The fact that we are here today is really unnecessary, but here we go,” Morgan told reporters outside the Leon County Courthouse.
But House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who sponsored the legislation and insisted on the smoking ban, defended lawmakers’ actions. Rodrigues said other states that permit smoking of medical marijuana made it clear in proposals that went before voters.
“If you look at those other states, their constitutional amendments declared that it could be smoked and that it could be self-grown. If that’s what John Morgan wanted for Florida, he should have declared it in the amendment,” Rodrigues said.
Another measure passed this year could be in even more danger. A Miami judge on Monday ruled that a change to the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law was unconstitutional. Supporters said the change would better protect the rights of defendants in “stand your ground” cases.
In a 14-page order, Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch wrote that the Legislature overstepped its authority with the change, which involves pre-trial burden of proof.
The change violates Florida’s separation-of-powers doctrine because it amounts to a “procedural” revision, something that must be handled by the Florida Supreme Court, Hirsch wrote.
Supporters of the controversial change predicted an appeal.
“I’d be surprised if this decision wasn’t overturned by the appellate court,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and former prosecutor who sponsored the legislation.
THE DEATH PENALTY RETURNS
Scott also added another item to the judiciary’s load this week, when he signaled a potential end to the 18-month hiatus for the death penalty by rescheduling the execution of convicted killer Mark James Asay for Aug. 24.
Asay was one of two Death Row inmates whose executions were put on hold by the Florida Supreme Court early last year after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, struck down as unconstitutional the state’s death-penalty sentencing system.
The January 2016 federal court decision set off a string of rulings that have effectively put Florida’s death penalty in limbo for 18 months. In the ensuing legal battle, the court found Asay could be put to death because he was sentenced before a ruling that set the groundwork for Hurst.
Asay also would be the first Death Row inmate executed under a new, untested lethal-injection process adopted by state corrections officials. The changes to the three-drug lethal injection procedure come after previous drugs used by the state to execute prisoners expired.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Despite days of Democratic attacks, Secretary of State Ken Detzner said Florida would partially comply with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity’s request for data on state voters.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “This is strong-arm robbery. And the weapon is this policy, this legislation. And so we have to stand up and do something about it. We can’t just allow our community, and I’ll say it in this way, to be jacked like this.”—Broward County School Board member Rosalind Osgood, during a meeting in which the board decided to sue over a wide-ranging new state education law.