Attorneys representing Death Row inmates have filed a challenge to a law aimed at speeding up executions, saying the “Timely Justice Act” unconstitutionally usurps the Supreme Court’s powers and violates convicts’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
The lawsuit is led by two lawyers – Capital Collateral Regional Counsel South Neal Dupree and Capital Collateral Regional Counsel Middle Bill Jennings – who head the state agencies that represent Death Row inmates in post-conviction proceedings. Dozens of other lawyers and more than 150 inmates awaiting execution joined the lawsuit against Attorney General Pam Bondi and the state of Florida filed with the Supreme Court Wednesday afternoon.
The lawyers filed the lawsuit less than two weeks after Gov. Rick Scott signed the measure into law.
The new law, which goes into effect on July 1, requires the Florida Supreme Court to certify to the governor when a Death Row inmate’s appeals have been exhausted. Under the new law, the governor will have 30 days to sign a death warrant once the capital clemency process is complete.
The lawyers have asked the Court to issue an emergency injunction blocking the law from going into effect.
“The Act creates a rushed process for issuance of a flood of death warrants that will inundate the courts and abruptly cut off this Court’s exercise of judicial review in capital cases. If not addressed prior to its operation in practice, the process will have the unconstitutional and irreversible result of individuals being executed under a legislatively-determined judicial procedure in which violations of their constitutional rights go unresolved. Further, Florida history shows that diminished process can have tragic and irreversible consequences,” the lawyers wrote in the 89-page filing.
The court filing includes a lengthy examination of both the Court’s and the legislature’s efforts over the past 30 years to come up with a more expedited but fair death penalty process “to balance the concerns of fairness and justice with the need for finality” in death penalty cases.
That process “cannot and should not be displaced by a lawmaking process based on political, rather than constitutional and equitable, concerns,” wrote Dupree and Jennings, joined by Martin McClain, who has represented numerous Death Row inmates, included some who have been exonerated.
Since signing the bill, Scott’s office has launched a public relations campaign disputing reports that the new law speeds up executions and insisting instead that the law “makes technical amendments to current law and provides clarity and transparency to legal proceedings.”
According to Scott’s office, 13 Death Row inmates would fit the criteria under the new law to have a death warrant signed.
But in the court filings, lawyers for the condemned argued that the Legislature’s new scheme to limit post-conviction appeals lacks an understanding of the complexities of the process and imposes restrictions on federal appeals.
The Legislature “has made profoundly critical decisions determining what judicial vehicles are available to capital defendants prior to the State taking the ultimate punitive act of terminating their lives, yet it seems the Legislature does not have an understanding of those vehicles and their names. Unless, that is, we must presume that the Legislature intended to cut off U.S. Supreme Court review of Florida death cases, which would present concerns of federalism, constitutionality, and fairness beyond those addressed herein,” the lawyers wrote.
The lawsuit also accuses the law of violating the separation of powers between the branches of government because it gives the governor the authority to oversee whether the Clerk of the Supreme Court complies with the 30-day requirement to notify the governor once appeals have been completed and because it takes away some of the court’s rulemaking authority by imposing time limits on the production of public records in post-conviction cases.
And the new law also fails to take into account that some appeals, including whether an inmate is insane cannot be made until after a warrant is issued, the Death Row lawyers argued.
The law would also give unequal treatment to convicts whose cases were processed before the new act went into effect, the lawyers wrote.