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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Lawsuits pile up after Legislature finishes its work

16

March

TALLAHASSEE — For the second consecutive year, the conservative agenda of Florida lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott appears likely to be settled in a courtroom.

Critics — who have sued to stop 14 laws passed by Republicans within the past year — are preparing to challenge at least two more bills in 2012. One would allow prayer at mandatory school functions. The other would require random drug testing of state employees.

Both measures, critics say, violate federal law and further expose the Republicans' propensity for legislative overreach. The governor's office says the legal challenges are routine for any administration.

"These bills are so strongly ideological," said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston. "A lot of these people in the Legislature are lawyers, and I know they had to take a class in constitutional law. They really should consider what they're doing."

Scott is likely to sign both bills into law this summer.

"If you think about it ... do I believe in prayer? I do," he said this week. "Do I believe I want to have a qualified work force? I do."

The 2012 "school prayer" bill would enable Florida's 67 school boards to adopt rules allowing the reading of student-initiated "inspirational messages" at assemblies and ceremonies.

Supporters of the bill frequently cite Adler vs. Duval, an 11th Circuit Court decision in Florida allowing students to give uncensored two-minute messages at graduation ceremonies, even if the messages are religious in nature.

"I feel very, very strongly that the legislation we have pending right now is constitutional," said Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat who worked with Republicans to pass the bill. "If someone does file a lawsuit, it will be a frivolous lawsuit, and they'll end up paying whoever they sued attorneys' fees."

But Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also insists he has decades of case law on his side. He points to Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe, a U.S. Supreme Court case that called student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games unconstitutional.

The "inspirational messages" bill is closer to the law struck down in the Santa Fe case, Luchenitser said, because the language of the proposal implies that religious messages are preferred. In contrast, the school in the Adler case invited students to speak on anything, he said.

"If the governor signs this, we're prepared to file litigation against any school districts that implement this law," Luchenitser said, adding that suits may also target the state.

Groups also are readying suits over the employee drug testing bill, which was sent to Scott's office for his signature Friday.

In a similar Florida case last October, federal Judge Mary Scriven barred the state from drug testing welfare applicants, citing the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on illegal search and seizure.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sued the state in that case on behalf of Luis Lebron, a 35-year-old Navy veteran and single father from Orlando who was finishing his college degree.

"It's the exact same legal principle," said Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida. "We testified and told the Legislature it was unconstitutional, and that nobody should be surprised if this results in another federal lawsuit."

Of the 14 lawsuits from the past year, 10 — on everything from new voting requirements and drug testing policies to restrictions on what doctors can ask their patients about guns — are still pending. The legal challenges come at a cost to taxpayers.

The attorney general's office absorbs most defense costs and has paid an additional $600,000 so far on challenges that stem from legislation. It is prepared to pay hundreds of thousands more, according to documents from the attorney general's office.

"I'm just doing what I know is right, and reviewing everything that comes to us," said Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Earlier this month, Leon County Judge Jackie Fulford struck down the Legislature's decision to change public employee pensions and cut worker salaries 3 percent without renegotiating state contracts.

The state paid Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird $500,000 to defend the case and put up another $300,000 for the appeal. If the law is ultimately overturned, it could leave the state $2 billion in the hole because legislators balanced the budget based on the 3 percent payroll savings.

"I think the law is clearly on our side. Hopefully we'll win very quickly on appeal, which we expect to," said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. "I'm hoping that on appeal by other judges, we can win the case."

Florida also is defending a law legislators say is designed to prevent voter fraud. The law requires voters to present a photo ID and enforces strict penalties for errors made when registering voters.

Critics say voter fraud is rare (there were 14 cases recorded in 2011), and accuse lawmakers of intentionally disenfranchising poor and minority voters.

Another law that bars doctors from asking patients if they own guns is also pending in the U.S. District Court's 11th Circuit. In September, federal Judge Marcia Cooke sided with physicians against the state, which quickly appealed.

Daniel Vice, an attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the law is so clearly unconstitutional the state will likely be on the hook for all attorney's fees, which could run into the millions of dollars.

Officials with Scott and Bondi could not provide details about how many lawsuits other Legislatures or administrations have faced.

But Scott's attorneys say lawsuits are a routine part of the checks-and-balance process.

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached bdavis@tampabay.com.

[Last modified: Friday, March 16, 2012 2:50pm]

    

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