Florida court justices hear line up of controversial cases in midst of election-year battle
Under fire from the right for its previous decisions involving the Republican-led state Legislature, the Florida Supreme Court today hears oral arguments today on cases relating to the death penalty, energy costs and university tuition issues that, depending on the ruling, will disappoint someone.
Three of the seven justices have been targeted by the Republican Party of Florida and conservative groups for defeat in November as they face a merit retention vote. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince are each accused by the groups for being liberal and activists judges.
The case first up is the case of John Errol Ferguson, the mass murderer from Miami who is scheduled to be executed on Oct. 16 for a series of brutal slayings. Ferguson's attorneys say that his history of mental illness makes him incompetent to be executed. The state argues Ferguson is faking mental illness and the last minute claim is just another attempt for him to prolong his life.
The second case to be heard is the lawsuit brought by former Gov. Bob Graham and others challenging the power of the Legislature to set tuition and fees at state universities after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2002 creating a Board of Governors to manage and operate state universities.
The trial court ruled the amendment did not transfer the power to set tuition from the Legislature to the new Board of Governors. The First District Court of Appeal upheld that ruling. Graham is in the audience as his lawyers plan to ask the court to overturn the ruling.
The third case is brought by the Southern Alliance of Clean Energy, a non-profit alternative energy advocacy group, against the Public Service Commission for allowing Florida Florida Power and Light and Progress Energy Florida to charge customers for nuclear power plants that they are proposing to build in the future, under a 2006 law passed by the Legislature.
SACE says that the law is unconstituional, because it shifts the taxing authority of the Legislature to a non-elected body, the PSC, and accuses the PSC of shifting the criteria to allow the companies to continue charging customers even as the need for the proposed plants was diminished over time and delayed by the companies.
In a demonstration of power, two former justices have been hired by the utilities who have joined the state to oppose the lawsuit: former Justices Stephen Grimes and Raoul Cantero. They sat at the table opposite their former colleagues.
As is always the case, Justices Pariente and Quince are the most aggressive questioners of the party's lawyers with occassional questioning from Justices Charles Canady.