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Florida Supreme Court keeps three amendments from ballot

TALLAHASSEE — The November ballot just got less crowded.

The state Supreme Court on Tuesday affirmed lower court rulings to strike three ballot amendments proposed by the Legislature concerning redistricting, the new federal health care law and property taxes.

The rulings, all decided by a 5-2 majority, mean voters will have their say on only six initiatives on Nov. 2. A separate decision by the high court rejected a challenge to Amendments 5 and 6, the so-called Fair Districts amendments, meaning they will stay on the ballot.

"To say that we're pleased would be a tremendous understatement," said Ron Meyer, an attorney who defended the Fair Districts effort. Those two amendments seek to prohibit lawmakers from drawing political boundaries to benefit a political party or candidate.

The Supreme Court ruled that the related Amendment 7, drafted by lawmakers to "clarify" 5 and 6, would not stay on the ballot. Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos and other supporters say their amendment was needed to protect minority voting rights enshrined in federal law.

"It is a sad day when more than 60 percent of the elected representatives of the people of the state of Florida can't get ballot measures approved by the court but special interest groups can," Haridopolos said in a statement.

The court ruled that the proposed amendment could undermine a current requirement that districts be "contiguous," or that all portions of a district touch another part. The ruling said the amendment was misleading because it did not tell voters about its effect on that requirement.

The court also took issue with the amendment's title, which reads, "Standards for Legislature to Follow in Legislative and Congressional Redistricting."

"While purporting to create and impose standards upon the Legislature in redistricting, the amendment actually eliminates actual standards and replaces them with discretionary considerations," the court ruled in an opinion written by Justice Barbara Pariente.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Charles Canady argued that the contiguity requirement is not subverted because Amendment 7 would require lawmakers to "implement" new and existing redistricting guidelines.

"The chief purpose of Amendment 7 is clearly articulated and presented to the voters in the ballot summary, which sets forth verbatim the operative text of the amendment," Canady wrote. "The text of the amendment speaks for itself, and it conceals nothing from the voters."

In a separate case, the court agreed to strike down Amendment 9, which was drafted in response to the new federal health care law to prohibit Florida from participating in any health insurance exchange that compels people to buy insurance.

A lower court ruled against the amendment because its proposed summary contained misleading phrases. In place of the summary, proponents argued the court should place the full text of the amendment on the ballot.

Supporters noted that a unanimous court in 2004 placed the full text of an abortion-related amendment on the ballot.

"The remedy was simple, let's just put the wording of the amendment on the ballot," said Sen. Carey Baker, a key sponsor of the Health Care Freedom amendment. "And they came up with some convoluted reason why they couldn't do that."

Justice Peggy Quince wrote in the opinion released Tuesday that lawmakers expressly voted to put their summary on the ballot instead of the amendment's full text. She also wrote that the court acknowledges it made a mistake in 2004 because that ruling "is not consistent with a long line of cases involving proposed constitutional amendments."

Pariente, Quince and Justice Fred Lewis were on the court in 2004, and all agreed to strike Amendment 9 from this year's ballot.

Baker, R-Eustis, said the rulings might spur the Legislature to create a better method for lawmakers to propose amendments. He said such a system might include a "pre-review" before the Supreme Court that is required of citizen amendments.

The court, in another 5-2 decision, also removed Amendment 3, which would have given extra tax breaks to first-time home buyers.

The justices ruled that a summary of the amendment was misleading because it did not tell voters that the tax break applies only to property bought after Jan. 1, 2010. The court also said the summary should have used a more clear definition of "first-time homestead."

Proposed amendments require 60 percent voter approval to be added to the state Constitution.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida Supreme Court keeps three amendments from ballot 08/31/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 11:48am]
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