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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Governor smart to veto family law changes

Gov. Rick Scott made the correct decision this month by vetoing legislation that would have overhauled alimony and child custody laws. The governor’s decision best protects families that go through divorces, children who are too often used as pawns — and the discretion of judges to make the best decision in each situation.
Published Apr. 22, 2016

Maybe it was the persuasiveness of the impassioned arguments against it. Maybe it was his family's own experience with divorce. Regardless of the reason, Gov. Rick Scott made the correct decision this month by vetoing legislation that would have overhauled alimony and child custody laws. The governor's decision best protects families that go through divorces, children who are too often used as pawns — and the discretion of judges to make the best decision in each situation.

Alimony and child custody in divorce cases have simmered as contentious issues in the Legislature for years. Then-Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, moved in 2005 to amend a family court bill to require judges to provide equal contact with both parents when it is in the best interest of the child. That effort failed, and so did a similar attempt three years ago that combined a child-sharing arrangement with changes to alimony. Scott vetoed that legislation, concluding that making changes to alimony that would have been retroactive could produce "unfair, unanticipated" results.

This year, Lee and other lawmakers again passed legislation that combined the alimony and child custody issues. Legislators voted to eliminate permanent alimony while allowing some judicial discretion, but the changes still would have been too punitive toward mothers who have focused on raising children. Yet much of the focus centered on child custody changes that began with requiring a presumption of equal time-sharing between parents. With the bill in trouble late in the legislative session, Lee and Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, adjusted the wording to require judges to begin with a "premise'' that children would spend an equal amount of time with both parents. That failed to satisfy the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, which opposed that provision and joined groups such as the National Organization for Women and the League of Women voters of Florida in asking Scott to veto the bill.

Those are not particular allies of the governor, but Scott acted smartly on the merits of legislation. In a particularly personal veto message, the governor noted he is a husband, father and grandfather and understands "the importance of family and the sensitivity and passion that comes with the subject of family law. … The one constant, though, is that when a divorce involves a minor child, the needs of the child must come before all others." The governor noted that current law requires judges to put the needs and interests of children first and concluded, "This bill has the potential to upend that policy in favor of putting the wants of a parent before the child's best interest by creating a premise of equal time-sharing."

Well said.

Workman suggested Scott's veto signals that a better approach would be to split alimony issues from child custody into separate bills. Perhaps, but breaking up the two issues will not change the fundamental flaw in the proposed child custody wording. Lee says the governor's concerns are unclear and claims the vetoed legislation did not change "the primary role of the court, which is to do what is in the best interest of the children." That's disingenuous at best. If creating the premise of equal time-sharing in child custody cases does not tip the scales from current law that already allows equal time-sharing, why is he still pursuing it after all of these years?

The easy political decision for Scott would have been to side with more of his natural allies and allow this bad legislation to become law. Give the governor credit for setting those considerations aside and sticking to his core concern about children.

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