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Eyes wide open

It wasn't for lack of trying that religious leaders opposed to a death penalty amendment failed to get it off the Florida ballot two years ago. They went straight to the state Supreme Court to argue that the ballot title and summary were seriously misleading, which happened to be true.

But the court, in the venerable tradition of high courts everywhere, sloughed them off to a trial court, which ruled against them. They appealed to the Supreme Court, which passed the buck yet again. The following day, voters approved the amendment by a margin of nearly 3 to 1.

Hindsight clarifies what prudence should have warned the court early on: The time to dispose of a constitutional amendment is before the voters have their say. To do it afterward, as the court has now done, is to play into the hands of demagogues eager for pretexts to cripple the court by limiting its jurisdiction.

The court has often pulled proposed constitutional amendments from the ballot, but it is a much different thing to erase what the voters have already written into their Constitution. That's a drastic act apparently without precedent in this state.

The governor and the Legislature's death claque were of course in full cry after last week's ruling. It's almost refreshing to hear them lamenting for the separation of powers, considering their disdain for it during the special session on the death penalty last January.

The immediate effect, however, is virtually nil. The motive behind the amendment was to protect the electric chair, which the Legislature itself has since replaced with lethal injection.

But this won't be the last time the court confronts questionable ballot language. Justices on both sides of the decision recalled how Justice Ben Overton, since retired, urged the Legislature 18 years ago to provide for rewriting misleading titles or summaries so that propositions, whether proposed by the Legislature or by initiative, would no longer have to be pulled from the ballot.

The need persists. Writing for the majority last week, Justice Leander Shaw observed that when Florida citizens "are being called upon to nullify an original act of the Founding Fathers, each citizen is entitled _ indeed, each is duty-bound _ to cast a ballot with eyes wide open."

No one, not even a Florida legislator, can reasonably refute that.