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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Ahead of merit retention vote, Times/Herald charts controversial Supreme Court decisions

31

October

Three Florida Supreme Court justices up for merit retention votes are being opposed by conservatives, who argue that the justices have displayed liberal philosophies in their decisions. It doesn’t help that the justices -- R. Fred Lewis, 64, Barbara Pariente, 63, and Peggy Quince, 64 -- were all appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, although Republican Gov. Jeb Bush also had a hand in selecting Quince.

The question is: Are these justices too activist and how can you tell?

While about 80 percent of all the court’s decisions are unanimous, conservative groups and the Republican Party of Florida -- which are opposing retention of the justices -- point to specific cases where they say members of the state Supreme Court crossed the line.

The Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau looked into nine specific examples cited by opponents of the justices as judicial activism so you can see the case, how the seven-member court ruled and, when there was dissent, why justices disagreed.

Read further to see the chart detailing these cases.

Tia Mitchell, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Case name and date Case summary Ruling Impact on merit retention What majority said
Delgado vs. State, 8/24/00

Jesus Delgado was found guilty of killing Tomas Rodriguez and wife Violetta in 1990. Delgado later appealed his convictions on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of armed robbery, as well as his death sentence. After the Supreme Court ruling, Delgado received a new trial and again received a death sentence. He is now on Death Row.

4-3. Pariente sided with majority. Lewis and Quince dissented. People who are hoping to get these justices removed from court have used this case as an example of judicial activism because a death penalty conviction was overturned. However, two of the justices in question dissented on this case. Justices decided that the lower court had erroneously allowed Delgado to be charged with burglary and that the burglary conviction was used to support a felony murder charge in the case. Deciding that no burglary had taken place, the court said Delgado's two murder convictions were achieved erroneously and he needed a new trial.
Armstrong v. Harris, 9/7/00

This case invalidated a 1998 voter-approved constitutional amendment that addressed the state's methods for executing prisoners under the death penalty. Although voters approved the amendment, days before the election a challenge was filed saying that the amendment's title and ballot summary were both misleading and gave the false impression that the death penalty would be weakened without the measure.

4-3. Pariente sided with majority. Lewis and Quince dissented. People who are hoping to get these justices removed from court have used this case as an example of judicial activism that devalued a vote after it took place. However, critics have ignored the fact that two of the justices up for merit retention dissented on this case. The court agreed voters might have been confused by this amendment when they approved it and invalidated the vote retroactively. The part of the state constitution that included the language found in the amendment was thrown out.
Bush v. Gore, 12/8/00 A tight vote in Florida left the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in question. In this landmark case, the Supreme Court was asked to review a lower court's ruling that denied Gore's requests as he contested the election results. Eventually, this case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which narrowly voted to overturn the Florida high court's ruling and award the presidency to Bush. 4-3. Pariente, Lewis and Quice sided with majority. People who are hoping to get these justices removed from court have used this case as an example of judicial activism, saying the court rewrote elections laws. Bush supporters were unhappy with the court ruling. The majority decided a lower court erred by not agreeing to count certain votes during the recount. The court added votes that cut into Bush's lead, ordered an immediate recount of 9,000 Miami-Dade ballots and directed every county to manually recount more than 30,000 ballots that had gone untallied.
Owens vs. Publix, 11/15/01 Evelyn Owens brought a personal injury action against Publix in 1995 after she slipped and fell on a discolored piece of banana that was lying on the floor of a store where Owens was shopping. The court was asked to determine whether the condition of the banana piece was sufficient proof that Publix should have known it was on the floor and prevented Owens' slip and fall. 7-0 People who are hoping to get these justices removed from court have used this case as an example of judicial activism and said the ruling made it harder for business to avoid frivolous lawsuits.  The court ruled that Publix had the burden of providing evidence that it had exercised reasonable care to prevent Owens' accident, since she proved she had slipped and fell because of the banana pieces on the floor. Justices ordered a lower court to re-hear the case based on their clarification of the law.
Nixon vs. State, 7/10/03 Joe Elton Nixon admitted to kidnapping, assaulting and killing a woman by burning her alive and was sentenced to death. He appealed his sentence, saying his attorney had an ineffective defense strategy because the lawyer decided not to contest Nixon's guilt.  The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Florida Supreme Court's decision in 2004 and Nixon remains on Death Row. 5-2. Pariente, Lewis and Quince sided with majority. This has become perhaps the marquee case used by those who are hoping to get these justices removed from the bench, who argue it is an example of gross negligence on the court. The Supreme Court said Nixon should get a new trial, reversing a lower court's decision. Justices said there wasn't evidence that Nixon had agreed to his defense attorney's strategy, which was essentially a guilty plea.
Bush vs. Holmes, 1/5/06 Then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s education voucher program that allowed students attending low-performing schools to go to private school was challenged on the basis that it violated the constitutional mandate for a "uniform system of free public schools" by diverting state funds to private schools. 5-2. Pariente, Lewis and Quince sided with majority. People who are hoping to get these justices removed from court have used this case as an example of judicial activism. Bush and other conservatives were unhappy with this ruling that ended a voucher program they championed. Court ruled the voucher program was unconstitutional because it reduced state funds for public schools while diverting state funds to private schools that are not subject to the “uniformity” requirements that public schools abide by.
Mangat vs. Department of State, 8/31/10 A circuit court ruled that a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2010 ballot called the Healthcare Freedom Amendment was misleading, and the Department of State appealed to the Supreme Court. The amendment, placed on the ballot by the Legislature, would have banned any laws that required people to participate in a health care system and is similar to Amendment 1 on the current 2012 ballot. 5-2. Pariente, Lewis and Quince sided with majority. People who are hoping to get these justices removed from court have used this case as an example of judicial activism. The Supreme Court agreed that the amendment summary was misleading and threw it off the ballot because the Legislature has specifically ordered the amendment's title and summary to be printed.
Scott vs. State, 6/30/11 Kevin Jerome Scott was sentenced to death for shooting and killing laundromat owner Kristo Binjaku during an attempted armed robbery. In that same attack, Scott also hit a witness on the head with the butt of a gun, although that information didn't come out until later. Scott appealed his first degree murder conviction and death penalty. 7-0 People who are hoping to get these justices removed from court have used this case as an example of judicial activism because a death penalty conviction was overturned. The court ruled that Scott's death penalty was unjust based on the facts of his case and ordered the trial court to instead impose a life sentence without possibility of parole. Specifically, they said the nature of how the shooting occurred wasn't to the level of warranting a death sentence. Justices also argued that Scott didn't have past violence in his record and instead the assault of the witness during the attack was used to justify the death penalty.
St. Johns River Water Management District vs. Koontz, 11/3/11 Coy Koontz Sr., who has since died, had decided to develop some property he owned in Orange County. But the St. Johns River Water Management District refused to issue Koontz the necessary permits, because he would not agree to make improvements to district-owned land nearby. Koontz sued and was awarded damages, but the case was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court which ruled against Koontz. His family continues to fight, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to take it up. 7-0 People who are hoping to get these justices removed from court have used this case as an example of judicial activism. They say justices expanded government's power in a way that is unfair to land owners. Justices reversed the lower court decision, ruling that no "unconstitutional taking" of Koontz's land had occurred. They argued that in this case, the permit was denied and therefore nothing was demanded or taken from Koontz.

 

[Last modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 11:08am]

    

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