Green Guide

Editorial Roundup: Florida

Posted September 16, 2020 1:11 p.m. EDT

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Sept. 16

The Sun Sentinel on allowing ex-felons to vote:

The truism that elections have consequences has been proved yet again to dreadful effect in a federal appeals court decision denying the right to vote to some 775,000 Floridians who have paid all their debts to society except for fines, costs and restitution that many cannot afford.

It means that wealthy criminals may vote in Florida once they’re out of prison or off probation, but poor ones can’t. It doesn’t matter, the court said, that the state can’t even tell most ex-felons what they owe.

For such an outcome to occur under the Constitution of the United States reflects how the federal appeals courts, like those in Florida, are being radicalized into instruments of right-wing ideology. Six judges appointed by Republican presidents opposed voting rights. Four judges appointed by Democratic presidents comprised the minority.

The Atlanta-based Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which did this terrible thing, is the successor to the old Fifth Circuit, which heroically enforced desegregation and voting rights in the 1950s and 1960s. The Eleventh’s website bears a tribute to Judge Elbert P. Tuttle, a mainstay of that old court. He was a Republican in an age when his party stood for civil rights rather than against them. He would be revulsed if he could see what has happened since.

How did it go so wrong?

Elections have consequences. So does every single vote.

It was by only 537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast in Florida in 2000 that George W. Bush won the presidency and the power to appoint Judge William H. Pryor Jr., who wrote the 11th Circuit’s majority opinion in the Florida voting case.

Pryor’s civil rights record as Alabama’s attorney general was so controversial that it took two years and a cross-party deal in the Senate to get him confirmed.

In the 2016 election, some 105,000 votes across three key states, out of 136 million cast nationally, gave Donald Trump the presidency even though he, like Bush, had lost the popular vote.

With the presidency came the power to appoint right-wing judges like Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, whom he put on the Eleventh Circuit last year. They cast the deciding votes to overturn the well-documented findings of U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee that Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature had violated the U.S. Constitution in how they implemented Amendment 4, the 2018 initiative to restore the vote to nearly a million Floridians barred for life by convictions for any felony, however small.

Neither Lagoa nor Luck should have taken any part in the Florida case. Both had heard similar arguments as DeSantis appointees to the Florida Supreme Court before Trump escalated them to the federal bench. All 10 Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee called on them to step aside. They refused, with the excuse that it was a different case even if the issues were alike.

During the Tallahassee hearing, Lagoa was conspicuously hostile to the ex-felons’ case and asked more pointed questions than any other justice. She went to the federal court with an undisguised bias on the issue.

Two days before the Eleventh Circuit’s decision was published, Trump added Lagoa to his roster of potential Supreme Court nominees, along with Carlos Muñiz, another right-wing Florida justice. Already on the list were two other Eleventh Circuit judges who voted the party line last week.

The 5.1 million Floridians who favored Amendment 4 two years ago probably did not expect how strictly DeSantis and the Legislature would implement it. Unfortunately, the amendment’s wording did leave too much to chance by requiring ex-felons to fulfill “all terms” of their sentences before voting.

But the U.S. Constitution is paramount, and Florida should have found a way to accommodate ex-felons who are genuinely unable to pay fees that, as Hinkle noted, are used to augment taxes in the operation of the courts. That makes them a poll tax if they become a condition of voting. Pryor’s opinion did not agree.

Lagoa joined Pryor in a concurring opinion that says felons have other ways to regain their voting rights. But the main remedy is one that Lagoa, as a Floridian, should know is a Catch-22. The governor and Cabinet have the power to restore voting rights, but both DeSantis and his predecessor, Rick Scott, have refused to consider more than a few hundred cases a year out of the tens of thousands of pending cases.

Pryor and Lagoa also observed that ex-felons may have their debts converted to community service, modified by a court or forgiven — really? — by those to whom they owe restitution. But those are painfully slow ways to restore the civil rights of nearly a million people.

Hinkle held that the Constitution allows Florida to require would-be voters to pay some of those debts, but not if they can’t afford to or if Florida’s can’t tell them what they owe.

The Eleventh Circuit’s dissents were long and biting.

“I cannot so easily condone a system that is projected to take upwards of six years simply to tell citizens whether they are eligible to vote … and which ultimately throws up its hands and denies citizens their ability to vote because the state can’t figure out the outstanding balances it is requiring those citizens to pay,” wrote Judge Beverly C. Martin for herself and three others.

When 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, she concluded, “Florida gained an obligation” to help returning citizens to vote, “and to notify them of their eligibility in a prompt and reliable manner.”

In a separate opinion by Adalberto Jordan, an Obama appointee from Florida, the dissenters said that “so much is profoundly wrong with the majority opinion that it is difficult to know where to begin.”

That was a good way to put it.

Jordan’s dissent closed on a historical note.

The Fifth Circuit, he wrote, “has been rightly praised for its landmark decisions on voting rights in the 1950s and 1960s. … I doubt that today’s decision — which blesses Florida’s neutering of Amendment 4 — will be viewed as kindly by history.”

It should not. It will not. Nor should Florida voters see it that way when they decide whether to keep or replace the president who is responsible for it, and who says he might even put Lagoa on the U.S. Supreme Court.



Sept. 16

The Palm Beach Post on Gov. Ron DeSantis choosing 5th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Jamie Grosshans to replace Justice Peggy Quince

Gov. Ron DeSantis tried to pull a fast one. Faced with pressure to diversify the state’s highest court, the governor thought he had a shot at making a notable pick and a bit of Florida history by picking a Black jurist of Caribbean descent. Too bad that the nominee didn’t have the minimum qualification set in the Florida Constitution: 10 years as a member of the Florida Bar.

Apparently, DeSantis hoped his bid for racial representation would make everyone overlook that little detail. It didn’t work. Not even with the Florida Supreme Court that DeSantis has helped to shape.

DeSantis had chosen Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Renatha Francis to replace Justice Peggy Quince, the only Black member of the seven-person panel. Although Francis has been a judge for only three years, her name was one of eight sent to DeSantis by the lawyers who made up the Judicial Nominating Commission that vets Supreme Court nominees.

Blame DeSantis for an embarrassing performance from beginning to end. He dawdled until May, four months after getting Francis’ name from the JNC, to announce her appointment — well past the required 60-day deadline to nominate a judge to fill a court vacancy. DeSantis knew that Francis would not reach the 10-year threshold until Sept. 24, but figured she wouldn’t be seated on the Supreme Court until Sept. 25 after factoring in maternity leave.

The court didn’t buy it. In a unanimous decision written by Justice Carlos Muniz, a DeSantis appointee, the high court on Friday ruled that Francis was “constitutionally ineligible” and ordered DeSantis to appoint a new justice from the names on the JNC list by Monday noon.

DeSantis kept fighting his losing hand. Playing race-card politics — again — he surrounded himself with Black Caribbean political leaders in Broward County to press the case for Francis, who eventually withdrew her name from nomination.

Not until nearly 5 p.m. Monday — with a threat of contempt of court looming over him — did DeSantis name a replacement: 5th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Jamie Grosshans, yet another member of the Federalist Society, the conservative group from which DeSantis seems to draw all his judicial nominees.

Give the Supreme Court credit. The justices — half of them appointed by DeSantis — could have found a way to preserve the appointment by merely allowing DeSantis again to pick Francis’ name from the JNC list. Instead, they ordered the governor to choose another name from the original JNC list, someone who’d pass muster.

The real profile in courage in this drama was state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Black Democrat from Orange County. The longtime lawmaker has always advocated for Black judicial appointments but believed Francis, who has spent just three years as a judge, fell short of the qualifications for the Supreme Court.

Thompson also balked at one particular DeSantis requirement that continues to make Florida’s highest court so homogeneous: affiliation with the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy.

DeSantis himself belongs to the organization, which — ironically, given this case — advocates for strict interpretations of state and federal constitutions. Every justice he has appointed to the Florida Supreme Court has belonged to the society. If that isn’t a litmus test, we don’t know what is.

Thompson apparently thought so. She filed the lawsuit in hopes that a more qualified Black jurist would make it onto a new JNC list. The justices decided differently, and now the high court will be left without a Black appointee for the first time in decades.

Which means that Florida’s regrettable lack of representation in the state’s courts will continue. As documented in November 2018 by the T.J. Reddick Bar Association, a Broward-based advocacy group, 84% of Florida’s judges are white. Only 9% are Hispanic and 6.6% Black. Those figures didn’t come close to reflecting the 37% of Floridians who are Black or Hispanic.

The lawsuit that blocked the Francis appointment, Thompson v. DeSantis, should be considered a landmark case against a politically tainted judicial nominating process. How else to describe a vetting procedure that gave an OK to a constitutionally unqualified nominee?

The outcome closes the door on any Black jurist being appointed to the state Supreme Court in the foreseeable future. It also solidifies the hold of conservatives judges in key roles in the state’s legal system.

And it exposes just how vulnerable Florida’s judicial nominating process, which exists to shield the selection of judges from partisan politics, is to abuse from a determined governor.



Sept. 11

The Orlando Sentinel on President Donald Trump extending the ban on gas and oil drilling:

President Trump was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this week. What he really deserves is a Nobel Prize for Political Pandering.

The clinching moment came Tuesday when he extended a ban on gas and oil drilling off Florida’s coast. The 10-year extension will run through 2032.

It was a shocker coming from a president who all but has a “Drill, Baby, Drill!” bumper sticker on his limousine. Though, we probably should have seen this about-face coming.

It’s an election year. Floridians hate drilling. Joe Biden opposes new permits for drilling in federal waters. Polls are tight in our coveted swing state.


Trump is suddenly the Tree-Hugger-in-Chief.

“To my administration, environmental protection is a sacred obligation,” he proclaimed.

So is winning the election. The order expands the current ban in the Gulf Coast to areas that have yet to be leased to oil companies in the Atlantic Ocean.

That stretch will include South Carolina and Georgia, another state in electoral play. If Trump could have extended the offshore ban to Pennsylvania, he probably would have.

The signing ceremony in Jupiter was essentially a campaign rally. The stage was decked out in balloons and the flags of Florida and America. The backdrop was the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse.

Trump held up the executive order and remarked that he’s done more to protect the environment than any president since Teddy Roosevelt.

“It’s an order that does so much for the state of Florida,” he said. “It’s an order that I’m so proud to sign.”

We’d join in the celebration, but we suspect he signed the executive order with invisible ink.

Trump is hardly the first politician to flip-flop on a touchy campaign issue, but this was like Nancy Pelosi coming out in favor of the border wall. The Sierra Club rates Trump “the worst president in our history for our environment.”

He’s opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas production. He’s repealed scores of environmental regulations. He’s rolled back offshore drilling safety rules.

Alarm bells started blaring in Florida when Trump moved to allow offshore drilling in nearly all U.S. coastal waters in 2018. Gov. Rick Scott hopped on the phone and said that would not play in Pensacola or anywhere else in Florida, and the Interior Department quickly exempted the state from the plan.

Last September, the U.S. House passed the Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act of 2019. It was sponsored by Florida Republican Francis Rooney and would have permanently banned drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Every Florida House member except Ted Yoho voted in favor of the bill. The White House denounced the measure and threatened a veto if it passed the Senate. Mitch McConnell spared everyone the trouble by never giving the bill a hearing.

Politico reported last June the Trump administration was planning to open drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast, but it would not announce it until after the 2020 presidential election.

The Interior Department tweeted the report was “#FakeNews.” This week’s announcement would seem to back that up, but it comes with a nagging question:

How long will it remain fake?

The executive order can be reversed with the stroke of a pen. If Trump is re-elected, there’s nothing to stop him from reverting to form.

Offshore drilling is one thing most Floridians can agree on. Two years ago, nearly 70% voted for a constitutional ban on drilling in waters controlled by the state.

A poll last March found 64% of Florida voters opposed drilling.

The only group favoring it were Republicans, 54% to 38%. But as Trump said in the 2016 election, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

He could extend the drilling ban 100 years and probably not lose any Republican voters in Florida. Some of them will just have a good laugh if/when he lifts the ban in a year or two.

For the rest of us, that would be a massive betrayal.

Maybe we’re overly skeptical assuming Trump did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Maybe the president has had an environmental epiphany. Maybe he’s truly worried oil might start washing up at Mar-a-Lago. Maybe all this won’t turn out to be fake news.

If so, there’s an easy way to prove it.

Trump should strong-arm the Senate into passing a bill that permanently bans drilling off our coasts. Then he should sign it in permanent ink.

Until then, we must assume he’s far more concerned about Florida’s 29 electoral votes than protecting its beaches.


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