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Death Row lawyers and inmates challenge new fast-track death penalty law

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013 by Dara Kam

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.

Crank it up! Florida Senate kills ban on loud car music

Friday, April 26th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Drivers can continue to crank up the volume as loud as they like after the Florida Senate killed an attempt to revive a ban on loud music on a tie vote.

Some lawmakers wanted to reinstate a 1990 law struck banning drivers from blasting radios, tape decks or other devices at a volume that can be heard 25 feet away or more. The Florida Supreme Court last year struck down the law, ruling that it is unconstitutional.

This year’s proposal tweaked a problem in the law that included an exemption in the noise ban for vehicles broadcasting commercial or political messages, such as ice cream trucks or campaign vehicles. The ban violates the First Amendment by restricting certain kinds of speech while not restricting others, the court found. The latest plan would have expanded the ban to all types of vehicles.

The 19-19 vote on the measure (SB 634) came after an at-times tongue-in-cheek debate on the merits of rocking out in your car.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, called the proposal a “crime prevention” measure because when loud music rattling car windows at times “makes you want to kill somebody.”

The measure would have made playing loud music a primary offense, which rankled Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah. Lawmakers just approved a measure that would make texting and driving a secondary offense, meaning drivers could only be penalized if they are pulled over for something else.

“That kills people. This doesn’t kill anyone,” Garcia objected.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, sponsored the texting and driving ban and spoke against the noise prohibition.

“It’s life. I don’t intend to pass a law that says you can’t ruin your own hearing if you want to,” she said.

And Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said making the prohibition a primary offense could open the door for giving law enforcement an opportunity to harass youngsters.

“Twenty-five feet is such a short distance to end up pulling over one of our young people and then something else escalates,” Gibson said. “You all remember when you were growing up maybe when you got your first car and you turned that radio up a bit, turned it up a little bit more.”

But Sen. Wilton Simpson, said that the loud music can be a distraction that can keep drivers from hearing ambulance sirens.

“This is a serious bill with serious implications,” he said.

State investigators clear justices of wrongdoing, Scott not pleased

Thursday, July 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Three Florida Supreme Court justices did not break the law when they used court staff to notarize campaign documents, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement decided.

But the matter is not settled. Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Fred Lewis, up for merit retention, now have to fend off a lawsuit seeking to strip them off the November ballot.

Gov. Rick Scott directed FDLE to investigate the issue last month after state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, steered the governor to a state election law prohibiting candidates from using state employees who are on the clock for campaign work.

Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs found the judges apparently violated the law, but noted in a letter to FDLE that the notarization took less than a minute.

“It is well established that the law does not concern itself with trifles. In general, there is no prohibition against a notary employed by the state, notarizing a document for their boss, or even as a public service to the citizenry,” Meggs, a Democrat, wrote to FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey this week.

FDLE investigators agreed.

“It appears that the practice of using staff members to notarize campaign and other documents is common practice throughout the State and is done solely as a matter of convenience,” the FDLE report concluded.

The involvement of staff to notarize the financial disclosures and candidates oaths “was ancillary in nature and limited solely to notary services and the typing of the headers on these documents,” the report found. “Neither the Justices nor the Supreme Court staff interviewed considered the notarization of these documents to be, in any way, campaign related, and no evidence indicating an abuse of either position or public resources was revealed during the course of this inquiry.”

Scott issued a terse statement sounding displeased with FDLE’s results.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Commissioner Gerald Bailey and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for diligently reviewing the possible violations by Florida Supreme Court Judges. According to FDLE findings, it appears using state employees to complete and file campaign forms and other documents is ‘common practice.’ Now this case is before the courts where a determination will be made as to whether this ‘common practice’ is legal. Whatever the ruling, we will accept it and act accordingly,” Scott said.

In April, the justices interrupted oral arguments after being alerted that their campaign documents were not complete. Court staff helped to complete their papers, which were submitted just minutes before the qualifying deadline.

Supreme Court hears oral arguments in seminal Palm Beach County foreclosure case

Thursday, May 10th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Florida Supreme Court justices hammered a lawyer representing a Royal Palm Beach homeowner this morning in a seminal foreclosure case that could have far-reaching effects on other civil litigation.

The justices heard oral arguments in the unusual case involving Roman Pino, a drywall hanger whose lawsuit has already been settled. It’s the first foreclosure case to come before the state’s high court since the housing collapse.

Pino’s case against the Bank of New York Mellon focuses on whether lenders or other plaintiffs can escape penalties after filing bogus documents with the court simply by voluntarily dismissing the lawsuits. A voluntary dismissal allows the bank to refile at a later date.

The Palm Beach County homeowner accused the bank of using false documents in its foreclosure proceedings against him. Pino and the bank have since settled the case, but his lawyers want the high court to decide whether trial court judges have the ability to overturn voluntary dismissals.

The justices peppered Amanda Lundergan, a lawyer with the Tom Ice law firm that represented Pino, with questions during oral arguments this morning. They seemed to have trouble understanding what harm Pino had suffered.

“What it seems like to me, you’re just looking for a ‘gotcha’ to get out of the mortgage. Am I wrong?” Chief Justice Charles Canady said.

“Absolutely wrong,” Lundergan said. “This is not about Mr. Pino. This is about the bank and the fraud that was committed.”

But Bruce Rogow, who represents the bank, said Pino’s lawyers are essentially asking the judges to change court rules about voluntary dismissals and that the foreclosure case could have far-reaching effects.

“We have not had problems. This is, because it’s a mortgage foreclosure case, because there are a lot of those cases, it has attracted a lot of attention. But I think we have to look at this in the universe of general civil litigation. And this has not been a problem in general civil litigation,” Rogow said.

In Pino’s foreclosure case, his lawyers challenged a document created by the Law Offices of David J. Stern and sought to question employees about its veracity. On the eve of those depositions, the bank moved to dismiss the case, blocking the court’s ability to address any sanctions.

Ice made headlines with the Pino case in 2010 when he was featured in a national magazine article about Florida’s so-called “foreclosure mills” and the discovery of allegedly fraudulent documents.

The robo-signing scandal was just breaking at the time, Florida’s foreclosure “rocket dockets” were full speed ahead, and David J. Stern’s Plantation-based firm was a foreclosure empire handling more than 100,000 cases statewide. It has since closed after losing most of its clients in the wake of the scandal.

Supreme Court decision to stay out of slots highlights Palm Beach County case

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Florida Supreme Court on Friday refused to wade into a lower court decision that opened the door for slot machines at pari-mutuels throughout the state, elevating a Palm Beach County challenge to a proposed slots referendum this fall.

The Supreme Court dismissed appeals by several Miami-Dade County pari-mutuels challenging whether slots should be limited to seven pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

That appellate court decision last fall opened the door for counties, including Palm Beach, to put referenda before voters allowing them to decide whether their pari-mutuels should be allowed to have more lucrative slot machine gambling.

Gambling lawyers throughout the state and Gov. Rick Scott’s administration officials were anxiously awaiting what many hoped would be a Supreme Court decision settling the issue.

Instead, focus is now on the Palm Beach County lawsuit filed by a Boca Raton woman last month. The Palm Beach court case could ripple throughout the state if Judge Janis Keyser yanks the referendum off the ballot.

“Obviously every pari-mutuel in the state is watching that with eager interest,” Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gulfstream Race Track and who also is a part-owner of a Gretna horse track in Gadsden County, where he hopes to soon start slot machine gambling. “All of a sudden all eyes go to Palm Beach.”

Lawyers representing the county are expected to file their briefs Monday in the case.

County commissioners voted in December to place the referendum on the ballot in the hopes that a favorable vote would lead to slot machines at the Palm Beach County Kennel Club. Voters in three counties – Gadsden, Hamilton and Washington – have already signed off on the measures.

The Palm Beach County lawsuit filed by Boca Raton resident Sandra Medlicott centers on an opinion issued by Attorney General Pam Bondi earlier this year saying pari-mutuels should not be authorized to offer slots without changes to the state constitution or permission from the Legislature.

UPDATE: Bondi sends new Florida Senate maps to Supreme Court, oral arguments set

Thursday, April 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: The Florida Supreme Court has set April 20 for oral arguments on the revised Florida Senate maps submitted for review today by Attorney General Pam Bondi. The Senate has hired former Supreme Court justice Raoul Cantero at $675 an hour to help sell its maps to his former colleagues.

The revised Florida Senate maps are now in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court after Attorney General Pam Bondi sent them to the high court for review today. And the group that backed the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendment responsible for the Court’s rejecting the original maps also filed their competing plan, saying the Senate’s modifications still don’t meet muster.

Bondi waited less than 24 hours to send the original maps – rejected by the Court last month – but hung on to the revamped districts for more than a week. She had until April 11 to deliver them. The Court has 60 days to act on the plan, and can approve it or reject it and replace it with one of its own or another, such as the Fair District’s proposal.

Democrats complained that Bondi’s delay was intentional and part of a Republican strategy to pressure the Court and the U.S. Justice Department into hurried scrutiny of the proposed districts. Candidate qualifying for the November elections begins on June 4, meaning political wannabes may be filing to run in districts that may not exist by the time the election rolls around.

Also today, the groups that backed the constitution’s new “Fair Districts” amendment – the League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Florida Common Cause – submitted their own version of the Senate’s 40 districts they say are more likely to comply with the amendment that, among other things, bars lawmakers from crafting maps that protect incumbents.

While the Court signed off on the Florida House’s redrawn 120 districts, the justices found the original set of Senate maps “rife with objective indicators of improper intent” and tossed out eight of the 40 Senate’s proposed districts.

“The Court gave the Senate a second chance, but the Senate just did exactly what it has done in every redistricting cycle – drawn districts to protect themselves and their political allies rather than protecting the voting rights of all Floridians. That is why we felt compelled to propose an alternative plan,” LWV president Deirdre Macnab said in a statement.

House poised to OK new redistricting maps; Democrats ready for court

Friday, February 3rd, 2012 by John Kennedy

Redrawn legislative and congressional district maps, which Democrats say will unfairly maintain Florida’s Republican dominance,  are readied for a final vote Friday in the state House.

Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, withstood hours of questioning Thursday from Democrats. He denied that new electoral boundaries were drawn to help or hurt incumbents, or assure that Republicans retain control of the Legislature or congressional delegation.

“At no point, were these maps drawn with any political intent,” Weatherford said.

But the Democrats are clearly looking to build a legal case against the maps, which must be reviewed by the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Justice Department, to assure minority-voting rights are protected.

The House is poised to vote Friday, sending the plans back to the Senate for final action, probably next week. The courts would then begin their work.

Here’s the rest of the story: http://bit.ly/yaNwA4

Courts want to keep more fees to avoid cash crunch

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011 by John Kennedy

Staggered by two major budget shortfalls in the past year, the state court system needs a more reliable cash source than the rollercoastering foreclosure fees lawmakers have steered its way, officials told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Polk County Circuit Court Judge John Laurent, who helped lead a workgroup of  judges and court clerks, urged the Senate Budget Committee to allow courts to keep more of the fees and service charges they already collect, but which are skimmed off for use in other state budget areas.

Judges and clerks also recommended that certain basic costs — salaries for judges, interpreters and court reporters — should come from state dollars, rather than from fees, the workgroup said in its report to lawmakers.

Close to $300 million in revenue raised by the courts are plowed into general revenue and other areas of government, officials said. If courts had been authorized to keep a larger portion of that money, they would have avoided shortfalls that are projected to demand $153 million in emergency loans in just over a year.

Court clerks needed a $44.2 million bailout last year and are seeking another $36 million to get through March 2012.

Earlier this year, the shortfall forced chief judges in Palm Beach County and other counties to consider employee layoffs, furloughs and other emergency measures. 

“This is not a question of us overspending our budget,” said Laurent, a former state senator. “The moneys have not been appropriated to our trust fund to support our budget.”

Central to the court’s woes: foreclosure fees.

 The trust fund that powers the $1 billion court and clerk system draws the bulk of its financing through these feees. But the court system’s cash flow was disrupted late last year by a nationwide freeze on foreclosures by most major lenders.

“It’s not a good, stable situation,” conceded Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also questioned the Legislature’s approach in making the court system so reliant on fees.

Without providing specifics, Negron said some fees charged Floridians for court activities are too high — warning that it could lead to legal decisions that amounted to ”cash-register justice.”

“The court system has become too dependent on churning out revenue,” Negron said, adding that more state dollars should be directed to courts. ”This thing has gotten out of whack.”

The workgroup’s full report is here:    http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/

Scott abides by court ruling; now only informally reviews rules, aide says

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Less than two months after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Rick Scott could not require agencies to get his formal approval for rules they wanted to enact, a spokesperson said Wednesday the office is still reviewing the proposals — informally.

But a few House Democrats said such action may violate at least the spirit of justices’ 5-2 decision.

“Isn’t this like an end run around the court decision, that you”re subverting the court ruling?” Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, asked Patricia Nelson, deputy director of Scott’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform.

Nelson said the governor still insisted on a “very close oversight of agency rulemaking.” But she denied that agencies had to go through the governor to get a go-ahead.

Indeed, Nelson said that if an agency has a standard that it must set quickly, or if there’s a backlog slowing review of a proposed rule, officials are told to enact it.

“We tell them you can move forward, because you don’t have to wait for my approval, based on the Supreme Court ruling,” Nelson said.

In a letter to agency heads sent shortly after the court ruling, Scott chief-of-staff Steve MacNamara said the governor “believes the majority opinion is illogical and grossly misreads the Florida Constitution.” MacNamara said Nelson’s three-person office will continue to “advise” agencies on what kind of rules they should enact.

Scott has vowed to cut government regulations and red tape. But Democrats on the House Rulemaking and Regulation Subcommittee saidWednesday  they were concerned that Scott’s review still amounted to undue influence, while acknowledging the agencies affected are under his control.

“It raises some great concern to me,” said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens.

Federal court postpones Manuel Valle execution

Friday, September 2nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

A federal court in Atlanta has postponed the execution of convicted cop killer Manuel Valle until at least Thursday.

It’s the second time since Gov. Rick Scott signed Valle’s death warrant – the only one Scott has signed since taking office in January – earlier this year that his execution has been stayed.

Valle, who has spent more than three decades on Death Row, was slated to be put to death by lethal injection on Tuesday.

The Florida Supreme Court in July put his execution, originally set for Aug. 2, on hold after his lawyers raised objections to the state’s use of a new drug as part of the lethal injection formula. Department of Corrections officials substituted pentobarbital for a drug no longer manufactured as the first of the three-drug lethal injection “cocktail.”

Since his conviction for the 1978 killing of Coral Gables police officer Louis Pena, Valle has been sentenced to death and re-sentenced three times in legal wrangling that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his death penalty in 1987. Courts later reaffirmed his death penalty conviction.

On Aug. 23, the Florida Supreme Court On Tuesday, the court approved the Department of Corrections’ new drug protocol, saying it did not pose a substantial risk of harm to the inmate.

Valle’s lawyers are also pursuing other appeals, including with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Manuel Valle execution set for Sept. 6

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Florida officials are scheduled to put Manuel Valle to death on Sept. 6 at 6 p.m. after the Florida Supreme Court yesterday approved the state’s new lethal injection drug cocktail.

Valle has spent more than three decades on Death Row and has avoided execution through a series of appeals, reversals and other legal wranglings that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his death penalty. In all, courts have re-sentenced Valle to death three times.

Valle, who was born in Cuba, was sentenced to death for the 1978 murder of a Coral Gables police officer, Louis Pena. Valle, now 61, shot Pena after the police officer pulled him over on a routine traffic stop.

The state’s highest court put the execution, originally ordered by Gov. Rick Scott for Aug. 2, back on track on Tuesday with an order approving the state’s new lethal injection drug protocol.

The court in July halted the execution and ordered a hearing on the Department of Corrections’ new drug – pentobarbital – substituted for a drug no longer manufactured and used as the first of the three-drug lethal injection “cocktail.”

On Tuesday, the court approved the new protocol, saying it did not pose a substantial risk of harm to the inmate. Valle’s lawyers argued that pentobarbital, also known as Nebutal, may not render him unconscious, thus subjecting him to undue pain induced by the following drugs used in the procedure.

But the Supreme Court agreed with three other federal courts who also found no credible evidence that administering the drug in the method proscribed – 10 times the dosage required for sedation – would not render Valle unconscious. Pentobarbital is also used in animal euthanasia and assisted suicide, but its manufacturer has asked prison officials as well as Scott not to use it to kill prisoners.

Lawyers for Valle are still pursuing a challenge against lethal injection in federal court and other appeals, including with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court signs off on new lethal injection drug; execution a go

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Florida Supreme Court approved a new lethal injection drug and removed a stay on the execution of cop-killer Manuel Valle.

The court unanimously ruled that the use of the new drug – pentobarbital – as part of the three-drug lethal injection “cocktail” does not inflict undue pain, ignoring the objections of Valle’s lawyers.

A divided Supreme Court last month ordered a Miami judge to hold a hearing on the new drug, an anesthetic Department of Corrections officials decided in June to replace sodium thiopental. Sodium thiopental’s manufacturer stopped making the drug early this year, leaving corrections officials in states like Florida scrambling to find a substitute.

A unanimous court agreed Tuesday with Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jacqueline Hogan’s ruling earlier this month that the drug does not raise a substantial risk of harm. Three federal courts have also signed off on the drug. Florida’s protocol requires a dosage of the drug – also used in animal euthanasia and assisted suicide – 10 times the dosage used for sedation.

Lawyers for Valle, who has spent 33 years on Death Row, argued that using pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal, as an anesthetic may not render him unconscious, thus subjecting him to undue pain induced by the following drugs used in the lethal injection procedure.

The Danish manufacturer of the drug, Lundbeck Inc., twice pleaded with Gov. Rick Scott not to use the drug, saying it “contradicts everything we are in business to do.”

Scott signed a death warrant for Valle – his only since taking office in January – late in May.

Florida Supreme Court rules against Scott, finds he violated separation of powers

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott overstepped his authority and violated the separation of powers by freezing state agency rulemaking, the Florida Supreme Court ruled today.

Shortly after he was sworn in as governor on Jan. 4, Scott suspended agency rulemaking and required the proposed rules be vetted by his office. He later created the “Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform” to review the rules, saying he wanted to make sure they did not slow down government, create barriers for businesses or cost taxpayers money.

But in a 5-2 ruling, the court found that Scott’s executive orders “infringe upon the very process of rulemaking and encroach upon the Legislature‘s delegation of its rulemaking power as set forth in the Florida Statutes.”

Chief Justice Charles Canady and Judge Ricky Polston, both appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, dissented. Scott acted within his constitutional authority as the state’s chief administrative officer whose duty is “to manage, plan, and hold agencies under his charge accountable to State laws, including the APA. The actual facts before us do not demonstrate otherwise,” Polston wrote.

Canady called the majority opinion an “ill-conceived interference with the constitutional authority and responsibility of Florida‘s Governor.”

Scott also saw it that way.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Scott said of the court ruling. “I don’t think it follows the constitution. It’s a disappointment.

“Think about it, the secretaries of these agencies report to me, they work for me at will, and I’m not supposed to supervise them? It doesn’t make sense,” he added.

(more…)

Miami judge signs off on Florida’s new lethal injection drug

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

A Miami judge this morning ruled that Florida corrections officials can use a new drug as part of the lethal injection “cocktail,” setting the stage for a Supreme Court show-down later this month.

The Florida Supreme Court temporarily halted the execution of convicted cop killer Manuel Valle, originally slated for Monday, until a hearing was held on the use of the drug pentobarbital. Florida Department of Corrections officials switched to the drug in a new lethal injection protocol released in June after the manufacturer of the old drug, sodium thiopental. The Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal, twice asked Gov. Rick Scott not to use the drug for lethal injections and has stopped selling it to distributors who resell it for that use.

Valle’s lawyers argued that the drug had not been tested and that its use may cause prisoners pain during executions in violation of the cruel or unusual punishment threshold set by a previous U.S. Supreme Court opinion known as “Baze.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola agreed with three federal courts that already ruled the drug does not raise a substantial risk of harm.

The “usage of pentobarbital does not create an objectively unreasonable risk of suffering,” Scola wrote in her order.

Briefs from Attorney General Pam Bondi, who went to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to get the execution back on, and Valle’s lawyers are due to the Florida Supreme Court by Aug. 19, and the court has slated oral arguments for Aug. 24 if necessary.

Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant for Valle – his only since taking office in January – late in May. The Supreme Court rescheduled Valle’s execution for Sept. 2.

Bondi asks U.S. Supreme Court to re-order execution

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Attorney General Pam Bondi has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to override the Florida Supreme Court’s stay on the execution of convicted cop killer Manuel Valle.

Valle’s death warrant, the first and only signed by Gov. Rick Scott since taking office in January, set his execution by lethal injection for Aug. 2. But the Florida Supreme Court yesterday put the execution off for a month until a hearing on a controversial new drug is held.

In a 4-3 ruling, the divided Florida high court ordered a Miami judge to hold a hearing on the new drug, pentobarbital sodium, an anesthetic Department of Corrections officials decided in June to replace sodium thiopental. Sodium thiopental’s manufacturer stopped making the drug early this year, leaving corrections officials in states like Florida scrambling to find a substitute.

But Lundbeck Inc., the Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital, recently announced that the drug is untested and unsafe for use in lethal injections. Lundbeck stopped selling the drug to distributors who intended to resell it for use in executions.

In her 12-page filing Tuesday, Bondi argued that the Florida justices “improperly granted the stay” because Valle’s lawyers failed to demonstrate that he would be subjected to a “substantial risk of harm,” the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court in determining cruel or unusual punishment in a case called Baze v. Rees, known as “Baze.”

“In Baze, a plurality of this Court held that an inmate was required to show that the protocol created a ‘substantial risk of serious harm’ that was ‘objectively intolerable’ to demonstrate that a lethal injection protocol was unconstitutional,’” Bondi’s motion said. “It noted that the mere fact that an execution method ‘may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death’ did not meet this standard.”

Bondi also disputed the testimony of Valle’s expert witness, pediatric anesthesiologist David Waisel. A lower court had rejected Waisel’s testimony but the state Supreme Court ordered that it be taken into consideration in the hearing on the new drug. Part of Waisel’s testimony included a description of what may have been a botched execution in Georgia using pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal.

“Since the claim has already been rejected in Georgia and Florida’s protocol contains similar provisions for a consciousness
check and not continuing the protocol until an inmate is unconscious (as noted in Justice Cannady’s dissent in the Florida
Supreme Court), the Florida Supreme Court erred in finding that this assertion was sufficient to grant a stay. The stay should be vacated,” Bondi wrote.

Senate passes watered-down courts amendment

Monday, May 2nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

The House and Senate reached a compromise on one of House Speaker Dean Cannon’s priorities that would have split the Supreme Court.

Instead, the proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 7111) would give lawmakers more control over court rules, require Senate confirmation of gubernatorial appoints to the high court and allow the Florida House to scrutinize judicial complaints.

What the bill doesn’t do – split the court in two and set a fixed amount of funding – permitted its passage by a 28-11 vote Tuesday evening.

Cannon’s accepted the deal, his spokeswoman said.

“The Speaker will consider the proposed Court Reform Amendment a win with or without the Supreme Court component. It does not appear that the Senate will go as far as the House in terms of bold reform, but Speaker Cannon believes in all of the policy and is proud of the debate that was initiated,” Cannon, R-Winter Park, spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an e-mail.

Senate plans to strip Cannon’s court overhaul, send it back

Monday, May 2nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Florida Senate may “the most conservative Senate ever,” as President Mike Haridopolos boasted at the onset of the legislative session.

But it’s apparently not conservative enough to pass House Speaker Dean Cannon’s sweeping overhaul of the Supreme Court that would, among other things, split the court in two.

As the clock winds down until lawmakers sine die on Friday, the Senate plan today is to remove at least that part of the proposed constitutional amendment, keep the provision allowing the legislature to have control over the court’s rules and send it back to the House for another vote.

“Our members have felt pretty strongly about splitting up the Supreme Court,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said. “What you’re going to see is an option sent back to the House.”

Senate GOP leaders (who have a 28-12 majority) won’t say out loud that they don’t have the 24 votes needed to pass the proposed constitutional amendment.

But Gardiner, whose job is to count votes and corral the GOP caucus, conceded the speaker’s priority measure wouldn’t pass as is.

“You never count out votes until you sine die but I do think there’s a strong sense amongst our members about the Supreme Court piece,” Gardiner said.

Senate ready to join Cannon in overhauling Supreme Court; do budget talks start now?

Monday, April 25th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Sen. J.D. Alexander disappeared for a while Monday afternoon from the budget committee he chairs — and returned with an amendment that effectively would bring the Senate in line with House Speaker Dean Cannon’s push for an overhaul of the Florida Supreme Court.

“There’s clear concern, particuarly from our friends in the House that this is needed now,” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Alexander earlier talked about his frustration in dealing with House leaders in trying to craft a state spending plan. Alexander said he hadn’t spoken with his House counterpart, Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid, since last Thursday and said budget negotiations may be threatened by his uneasy relationship with Cannon in past wheeling-and-dealing.

But the Supreme Court proposal clearly appears linked to getting budget talks started. Alexander proposed tacking it onto ballot measure affecting Supreme Court rulemaking.

 Similar to a measure already approved by the House, Alexander’s ’idea’ would add three members to the Supreme Court and split it into two divisions — one civil, one for criminal cases. At least 60 percent of voters would have to approve the proposed constitutional amendment for it to become law. 

The state Senate also would gain authority to confirm the governor’s appointments to the court. The Legislature would have more power to repeal court rules, while the Supreme Court would gain a guaranteed level of state funding — topping what it historically has drawn.

House Ok’s high court overhaul for ballot

Friday, April 15th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Less than a year after the Florida Supreme Court killed three proposed ballot measures pushed by the Republican-ruled Legislature, the state House voted 79-38 along party lines for a measure completely overhauling the seven-member panel.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said the move is designed to improve the court’s efficiency. Democrats weren’t so sure.

“No one party should be in control of all levels of government,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. “This is an attempt by leadership to not only command the governor’s office, the House and the Seante — but also the judiciary.”

The legislation (CS/HJR 7111) is a proposed constitutional amendment going before voters next year. If 60 percent approve, the Supreme Court would add three members be split into two divisions — one civil, one for criminal cases.

The state Senate also would gain authority to confirm the governor’s appointments to the court. The Legislature also would have more power to repeal court rules, while the Supreme Court would gain a guaranteed level of state funding — topping what it historically has drawn.

Democrats said Republicans are court-packing — seeking a friendly panel that may play a key role in reviewing legislative redistricting next year.

But GOP leaders disputed that Friday, saying, instead, they are looking at modernizing the high court and improving justices’ ability to deal with death penalty cases.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, said he’s tired of hearing Democrats accusing ruling Republicans of devious plans and “sticking it” to various interest groups.

“Today, I am voting for this bill, to stick it to every Death Row inmate,” Corcoran said.

A Senate version of the proposal is still awaiting a full chamber vote.

Cannon’s high court shuffle clears House panel

Thursday, April 7th, 2011 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Dean Cannon’s latest push to revamp the Florida Supreme Court sailed through a House panel Thursday in a vote divided on party lines — with Democrats ridiculing the measure as unneeded and chiefly a partisan payback.

“What is the rush for this?” asked Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach.

Cannon has been at odds with the court since justices last summer struck from the ballot three initiatives approved by the Republican-ruled Legislature. But bill sponsor Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, said the proposed overhaul is “about accountability and efficiency.”

Another Republican supporter, Rep. Charles McBurney of Jacksonville, said the legislation, “is a transformative resolution.” The Judiciary Committee approved the legislation 12-6.

The bill (CS/HJR 7111) would expand the current seven-member Florida Supreme Court to 10 members — but divide it into two divisions, civil and criminal. The approach is less sweeping than a larger court division initially proposed by Cannon, and backs away from his earlier call for eliminating Judicial Nominating Commissions and giving the governor more autonomy in naming judges.

The measure is aimed at the 2012 ballot, where at least 60 percent of voters would have to approve the change for it to become law.

 Supporters also worked to sell the legislation, saying it includes state funding provisions designed to avert the cash crunch that this week threatened to shutter courtrooms statewide. (more…)

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