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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Court takes summer break, putting rulings on death penalty and gambling on ice

The Florida Supreme Court released its final round of rulings for the summer Thursday and issued a rare clarification of its workers compensation decision of last month, but it also put left unresolved two of the most controversial issues to come before the court this year: the death penalty and expansion of slot machines.

The court postponed rulings on the constitutionality of the state's death penalty, leaving the state's procedure and the 388 inmates on death row in limbo for potentially several more months.

The ruling is expected as part of a series of hearings the court held in May and June over cases challenging the state's death penalty law passed by lawmakers in March, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in in Hurst v. Florida that the state’s sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The court has stayed two executions in the wake of the Hurst ruling, heard arguments in more than a dozen death penalty cases, and has not yet unanswered whether longtime Death Row inmates should be afforded new sentencing hearings.

The court also heard arguments in June about whether a 2010 state gaming law allows counties to expand slot machines without legislative approval.

Both decisions could have wide-ranging ramifications and could potentially provoke criticism, controversy and unleash an election-year debate over two highly-charged issues.

Three of the seven sitting justices on the bench are up for a merit-retention vote in November -- Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston.

The death penalty questions before the court were spawned by the January U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared the state’s death sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, Florida jurors issued bare majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty.

The opinion evolved from a similar ruling in a 2002 case, Ring v. Arizona, which held that juries in that state should have the sole authority to decide on aggravating circumstances that made someone eligible for the death penalty. Alabama, Florida and Delaware are the only three states in the nation that do not require an unanimous jury to impose the death sentence and Florida officials believed the jury’s “advisory” role was sufficiently different to allow the court to differentiate Florida from the Arizona ruling. 

The decision forced the Legislature to rewrite its death-penalty sentencing law to require juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. The decision to impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors.

The fact that the court went on its summer recess without issuing an opinion, however, doesn't necessarily mean there won't be one to come before the court issues opinions again in late August. 

Martin McClain, a lawyer who has represented more than 250 defendants condemned to death and presented arguments before the court in June, said Thursday that in 2009 he was appealing the death sentence of an inmate issued its last opinions before it recessed for the summer one week, and the next week the opinion on his case was issued. 

"We have no idea what they will do,'' he said in an interview. He noted that there are two people on death row in which juries recommended a life sentence but a judge overrode it with a death sentence and the court may be taking its time to consider the impact of those cases.

"We now have a statute that says you can't get a death sentence if three or more people voted for life and yet we are still going to execute people who have a life recommendation? It's very difficult to determine what we're going to do. It makes sense to me the court wants to do it right ...It's also clear from the oral arguments that they are not in agreement."

On the gaming question, the  Florida Supreme Court heard argument from owners for Gretna Racing that the rural racetrack should be allowed to install slot machines because it has the approval of county voters. 

The case hinges on what appears to be conflicting legislative intent stemming from a 2009 law that modified the implementing law relating to slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties by allowing Hialeah Park to be eligible for a slots license.

The race track was not an operating pari-mutuel facility when voters approved the statewide constitutional amendment allowing slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward in 2003 but, because Hialeah was located in Miami-Dade, legislators agreed to revise the law to include it among the casinos that could operate Class III slots.

The Legislature again changed the law in 2010 to allow counties to authorize slot machines. Gretna argues that the change applies to all counties but the state argues that the slots expansion is only allowed if it is first approved by the Legislature or the state Constitution.

If the court sides with Gretna, it could usher in the explosive growth of gambling across the state. At least five other counties — Brevard, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington  — have already voted to bring casinos to their stressed horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons. A statewide gaming expansion would also invalidate the $120 million-a-year gaming compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

[Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2016 1:10pm]

    

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