Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. May 31, 2022.

Editorial: How Attorney General Ashley Moody failed Floridians

The eyes of Texas’ legal establishment are on its disgraced attorney general, Ken Paxton.

The Texas Bar has taken steps to discipline Paxton for his fraudulent attempt to sell Donald Trump’s Big Lie to the Supreme Court, and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody should be watching very closely. Moody tried to sell the Big Lie, too, so the Paxton case reflects on her.

Not since the slave states tried to destroy the Union has there been such damage to national unity as Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election by claiming it was stolen from him. Most Americans don’t believe him, but more than two-thirds of Republicans do, polls show.

It is existentially dangerous. Almost everywhere they are in control, Republican politicians have acted out the Big Lie to make voting more difficult for minorities, subvert the ways votes are counted, and create a pretext for overturning elections they lose. They have sowed our democracy with seeds of distrust to be exploited by Trump or another would-be tyrant.

The Big Lie in Florida

As the next election nears, it bears remembering who has facilitated the Big Lie. Moody and 16 other Republican attorneys general asked the court to let them file briefs in support of Paxton’s case against counting Joe Biden’s electoral votes from Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin.

There were volatile misgivings among Moody staff members. One of them called Paxton’s case “bats--t insane.”

The court shared those sentiments. Justices voted 7-2 to refuse to hear it, saying Texas lacked standing to complain how other states vote. The justices also disposed of an attempt to intervene filed by 126 Republican members of Congress — 10 of them from Florida.

A highly respected former Florida Supreme Court justice, Charles Wells, wrote last year that Moody’s meddling in the Big Lie was “a grave mark against your service as attorney general,” and that as a member of the Bar, she has “an ethical obligation not to join in frivolous, meritless litigation.”

Now, the Texas Bar’s Commission for Lawyer Discipline says Paxton’s claims “were dishonest … not supported by any charge, indictment, judicial finding, and/or credible or admissible evidence.” Paxton did not disclose that some of his complaints had failed in other courts, according to the Bar, and “misrepresented” that Texas had substantial evidence.

Texas rules say “a lawyer shall not engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” Punishment can range from reprimand to disbarment.

Similar language is in Florida’s Code of Professional Responsibility.

If the Texas court finds Paxton guilty, it would be a major embarrassment to Moody at a time when she’s seeking re-election.

But that’s all it would be. An unpublished ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in 1974 prohibited the Bar from potentially disbarring any public official whom the Constitution requires to be a member of the Bar, including judges, prosecutors, public defenders and the attorney general.

They’re immune even to investigation until they are out of office, by which time witnesses’ memories may have faded.

The Bar used that unwise precedent to rebuff a petition calling for Moody’s discipline signed by some 1,700 lawyers over her support for Paxton. Later, the Board of Governors proposed asking the Supreme Court to codify the rule publicly. No such request appears on its docket, however, and a court spokesman says there is no pending case.

Not totally immune

But Moody is not immune to public opinion, which should hold her to account for debasing her office with partisan politics.

Her predecessor, Pam Bondi, did that too, seemingly auditioning for a job with Trump, whose fraudulent Trump University she refused to investigate. Out of office, she joined his defense team against Trump’s first impeachment and gave full-throated support to his Big Lie. Now part of Ballard Partners’ lobbying firm, Bondi has no immunity from Bar discipline.

Other Florida attorneys general of both parties were more mindful of their fundamental responsibility to be the “people’s lawyer.”

Moody has been better than Bondi at enforcing Florida’s unfair and deceptive practices law. Last week, she scored a $21.7 million judgment and a lifetime ban against a rogue moving broker network.

But wearing her political hat, she tried vainly to spin victory from a federal appellate court’s rejection of the main thrust of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attack on social media companies. She claimed that a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal had “upheld major portions” of the law. It did just the opposite.

In ruling that Florida could not stop social media companies from blocking politicians like Trump, the panel cited as the “pathmaking case” the unanimous 1974 Supreme Court opinion, Miami Herald v. Tornillo, which overturned a Florida law requiring newspapers to give equal reply space to candidates they opposed. Social media companies are similarly protected by the First Amendment, the panel said.

Moody arguably has a duty to defend even bad Florida laws — but not to misrepresent the outcomes.

The recent massacres of shoppers at a Buffalo supermarket and children and teachers at an elementary school in Texas also bring to mind how Bondi successfully urged the Florida Supreme Court to bar from the 2020 ballot a voter initiative banning assault weapons. Her brief and the court’s 4-2 decision echoed the NRA’s arguments.

She also opposed a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults, and so did the court, 5-2. Sharing the objections of both political parties, she opposed the “All Voters Vote” initiative that would have created open, all-party primary elections. The court allowed it for the 2020 ballot, but it got only 57% of the vote instead of the 60% necessary. Along with other GOP attorneys general, she tried to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to kill the Affordable Care Act. It was Bondi who had signed the brief, but Moody willingly took her place upon election.

The attorney general can be a partisan shill or she can be the people’s lawyer, but she can’t be both.

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Tampa Bay Times. May 27, 2022.

Editorial: Florida’s modest step on property insurance

Fumbling in the dark for a solution to high rates

Florida lawmakers set modest goals for this week’s special session on property insurance, and that’s exactly what they achieved. The handful of reforms aren’t likely to make a serious dent in fast-rising rate increases, at least for the near term. It’s also unclear if the changes will bring more protections and oversight to an opaque industry. The outcome is the product of a disengaged Legislature and state regulators who were unprepared.

Lawmakers seemed preordained to return to Tallahassee, having failed to address insurance during the regular session in an election-year where rates are increasing by double-digits and insurers are shedding tens of thousands of policies. On the consumers’ side, lawmakers are reviving a 16-year-old program that could give homeowners up to $10,000 to storm-harden their homes, which could help curb skyrocketing rates. The measures also bar insurers from refusing to cover some homes solely because of an older roof. For the industry, the legislation creates new access to reinsurance, a critical financial backstop for carriers, and limits the amount attorneys can collect in lawsuits against insurance companies.

The changes can help but many certainly amount to low-hanging fruit. The home hardening program, known as My Safe Florida Home, could enable thousands of homeowners to get free home inspections and matching state grants to replace their windows, doors and roofs, But the program’s past iteration was marred by incompetence and fraud during its two-year run. Considering their support for the program, lawmakers should have used the opportunity to provide it the resources necessary to be both meaningful and accountable. But legislators gave the program $150 million, 40% less than the $250 million the Legislature committed in 2006. Given the state’s growth, healthy reserves and increased risks from a warming climate, this wasn’t the time to be pound-foolish.

Lawmakers also took steps to curb the number of lawsuits filed against insurers over disputed claims. Carriers and Florida officials have long blamed excessive litigation by trial lawyers and fraudulent claims from roofers for driving up costs. The bill limits an attorney’s ability to charge double or triple their normal rates, except in a “rare and exceptional circumstance.” It also eliminates automatic payments for attorneys who are assigned benefits under a lawsuit against insurers, and it tightens anti-fraud provisions governing how contractors can solicit homeowners to make an insurance claim.

Lawmakers, though, haven’t done any analyses to determine what effect the legislation will have on homeowners’ rates. State officials said it’s unlikely rates will go down for at least 18 months. They also don’t know how many companies would tap into the reinsurance program. Another unknown: How much do those lawsuits actually cost insurers?

“This has been a constant source of frustration,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, told reporters about the lack of data on Tuesday. “It is very difficult for us to do anything on any policy area without information.”

What’s going on here? Florida’s property insurance crisis and the state’s vulnerability to hurricanes is hardly a last-minute surprise. Why hasn’t the speaker, the Senate president or the governor demanded some hard data and straight answers long before now?

“We haven’t heard from anyone from (the Office of Insurance Regulation),” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, remarked Monday more than two hours into a Senate committee hearing. State Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier sat in the back of the room. Legislators this week convened no panels of experts and heard no testimony from key state insurance officials, including the Department of Financial Services, which splits insurance regulation with Altmaier’s office. The legislation passed by the House and Senate, released less than 72 hours before the start of the special session, each received a single hearing, and Republican leaders entertained no serious debate or discussion about amending them.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Lawrence Mower noted, the Legislature — from start to finish — spent a total of three days in Tallahassee to address what most agree is a five-alarm crisis in the state’s insurance market.

Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, the Senate’s point person on the reforms, said he’s asked Senate leadership to hold a workshop over the summer to explore the issue. We won’t hold our breath. What’s required to get Tallahassee’s attention? The Legislature found plenty of time this year to marginalize gays, fight Disney World and create a new elections police force. But the Office of Insurance Regulation still hasn’t produced data about lawsuits against insurers that lawmakers wanted underway this year. Maybe Jimmy Patronis needs to pay more attention to his regulatory responsibilities as the state’s elected CFO instead of tweeting about Joe Biden’s flaws and the best chicken fingers in Jacksonville.

The ballooning cost of homeowners’ insurance is a dinner-table worry for everyday Floridians. They deserve better from their state leaders.

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Palm Beach Post. May 27, 2022.

Editorial: Don’t loosen Florida gun laws

It shouldn’t take a devastating shooting at an elementary school in faraway Texas to get Gov. Ron DeSantis to do the right thing. Don’t worry, he hasn’t and he won’t.

Instead of strengthening Florida gun laws, “constitutional carry” remains on his wish list. Under a constitutional carry law, a person who legally owns a firearm may carry it in public, concealed or openly displayed. Registering the firearm, mandatory training and licensing are not required.

DeSantis has been dropping loud hints about constitutional carry since February, when he told an audience at Mar-a-Lago that he expected the Florida Legislature to hold a special session on the issue this year. The Governor long has prioritized playing to the baser interests of his party over the will of the majority of his constituents. But this latest political sop to the far-right fringe may be his worst.

“I can’t tell you if it’s going to be next week, six months, but I can tell you before I am done as Governor, we will have a signature on that bill,” he said at a press conference last month in rural Levy County.

Florida is already a gun-friendly state. Floridians don’t need another law to make it even easier to put deadly weapons in the wrong hands.

It shouldn’t be hard to defeat constitutional carry in a state where the very words, “Parkland” and “Pulse” are synonymous with gun violence.

Poll after poll after poll shows a majority of Americans favor some forms of gun restriction. Ban on military-style, assault weapons? Check. Implement universal background checks? Yes. Restrict the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines? Sure. Allow family members and/or law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from persons seen as risks to themselves or others? Of course.

Good luck getting any of that enacted, though.

DeSantis, as well as Republicans in Congress, particularly in the U.S. Senate, have stood firm in opposition. Backed — some might say “paid for” — by the gun lobby, these officials have offered thoughts and prayers, talked up the need to address mental health and rein-in social media, while standing firm against measures to address gun proliferation.

Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and now Robb Elementary — after so much carnage, you’d think this time the response would be different. It’s not shaping up that way. Congress remains divided on what steps to take to address school shootings, meaning, most likely, nothing gets done.

For more than 30 years, the National Rifle Association has been pushing constitutional carry, with Georgia being the 25th state to approve a law the association believes allows law-abiding individuals to carry weapons without a government-issued permit. Florida is clearly in the NRA’s sights.

That momentum continues even amid the anguishing details coming out of Uvalde, Texas, where Salvador Ramos used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle to kill 19 children and two teachers at the Robb Elementary. According to authorities, shortly after his 18th birthday this month, Ramos legally purchased the rifle used in the shooting and another one. He had no criminal or mental health history and in Texas you can’t buy a Budweiser at 18 but you’re welcome to build an armory of AR-15′s.

Florida has a gun reform advantage over Texas. After the Parkland shooting in 2018, state lawmakers gave police the ability to seize firearms from anyone deemed a danger to themselves or others. The bill also raised the age requirement to buy a gun from 18 to 21, a provision the NRA still maintains is unconstitutional.

But even as children’s blood has barely dried, after another tragedy that has left so many grieving, gun rights advocates say this is not the time to politicize the issue. Someone should tell that to Gov. DeSantis.

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Orlando Sentinel. May 31, 2022.

Editorial: Arrests in ghost-candidate case could lead to more truth

Eight misdemeanor and four felony charges, most centered on the giving and receiving of relatively small donations in 2020′s hotly contested state Senate District 9 race. Three new defendants, two of whom are active in in Seminole County political circles and one who earned the title “ghost candidate” by filing as a nonpartisan in a state Senate race then slipping away to Sweden.

And one very big — and welcome — surprise.

Many political observers had given up hope for closure in Central Florida’s chapter of the 2020 ghost candidate scandal. It featured a pattern also seen in South Florida districts 37 and 39: A candidate with no party affiliation — in this case Jestine Iannotti, a former substitute teacher for Seminole County Schools — qualified in a tight Senate race between Republican Jason Brodeur and Democrat Patricia Sigman. She didn’t campaign or answer questions; in fact, she left the country for Sweden. But a mysterious political committee was active on her behalf, sending out campaign mail picturing a Black woman (Iannotti is white) and pitching her as a progressive alternative to Sigman. Those ads were nearly identical to mailers in the two South Florida districts.

Action has been slow in coming. More than a year has passed since the March 2021 arrests of key figures in the District 37 race. (Former state senator Frank Artiles is expected to go to trial this fall on charges that he orchestrated that scheme, including a payment of $50,000 to a ghost candidate with the same name as the Democratic incumbent.) Around that time State Attorney Phil Archer, who represents the judicial circuit that covers most of that district, told the Sentinel’s Scott Maxwell that his office didn’t investigate crimes.

But the Florida Department of Law Enforcement does. Archer contacted the agency in July, and their investigation led to the arrest of Iannotti, along with political operative Eric Foglesong and Ben Paris, chair of the Seminole County Republican Executive Committee. All of the charges announced Tuesday focus on bogus campaign contributions — including one from a man who told the Sentinel he never contributed to Iannotti and didn’t know who she was, even though he was listed as one of four donors to her campaign.

Critics may dismiss this case as small potatoes: There’s no evidence that Iannotti’s candidacy changed the outcome of the Senate race, though it cut Brodeur’s lead to a razor-thin margin. But step back, and it’s easy to see why it’s a big deal. The committee that sent out mailers touting Iannotti is part of a daisy chain of links that connect political scandals large and small across Florida.

The documents released this week reveal no new connections between the three defendants and other high-profile figures. But the same types of shadowy committees with bland names keep showing up — waystations on a vast underground river of secretive political cash, often visibly interconnected but constructed in ways that make it impossible to trace campaign spending back to the deep pockets from which it flowed.

Secrecy can be a fragile thing, however. Every time prosecutors make another arrest, they increase the potential for self-interested cooperation from powerful Floridians who are able to follow that money — because they help make the decisions that direct its flow.

That’s why the Sentinel will keep pursuing this story, and why we hope state attorneys, law enforcement agencies, elections officials and other truth seekers keep pushing to uncover the truth about power and money in Florida. We are convinced that what happened in Senate District 9 is just one small part of an overall picture , but Seminole County is emerging as a significant node through which many connections flow. The people of Florida deserve to know the truth, and we hope Archer is ready to play a leading role in uncovering it.

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Miami Herald. May 31, 2022.

Editorial: Trump-appointed judge slams Florida’s attack on the First Amendment. That’s a relief

In their frenzy to protect Donald Trump’s “free speech” rights to spread falsehoods on social media, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republicans appear to have misunderstood — or flat-out ignored — the First Amendment.

That beloved 45-word amendment to the U.S. Constitution gets its fair share of mentions in political speeches. But, in Florida, it sometimes applies only to those who toe the line of the party in power. Disney learned that the hard way when it got blacklisted for opposing a parental-rights bill critics call “Don’t say gay.”

One group that really gets under the governor’s skin are Silicon Valley’s “Big Tech” firms, the so-called “woke” folks who banned Trump from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube after the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol last year. Despite warnings that he would run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, DeSantis pushed a bill through the Legislature that, among other things, fined social-media companies for de-platforming political candidates in the run-up to an election. Disney, which at the time hadn’t yet fallen from grace with Republicans, earned a special exemption for its mobile platforms.

HARSH WORDS

To no one’s surprise, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the law restricts tech companies’ First Amendment rights. In a decision ironically written by a Trump appointee, appellate Judge Kevin Newsom, the court dressed down Senate Bill 7072: “The government can’t tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it.”

The court upheld most of a preliminary injunction imposed last year by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who had even harsher words, saying the tech crackdown is “riddled with imprecision and ambiguity.”

After the appeals-court ruling, a DeSantis spokesman posted on Twitter, “Our office is currently reviewing the options for appeal. We will continue to fight big tech censorship and protect the First Amendment rights of Floridians.” How odd to bring up the First Amendment, given that it makes it clear that, “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech (as well the exercise of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances). In other words, the amendment is largely understood to restrict government regulations on speech — the very thing that DeSantis and lawmakers attempted to do.

Trump, in or out of elected office, has no “First Amendment right” to post whatever he wants on Twitter, just like he doesn’t have the right to force, for example, a newspaper to run a column he’s written. Such companies are privately owned and allowed to regulate the content that they feature. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 ruled the Miami Herald was not obligated to print a response by a state House candidate to an editorial, striking down the state’s “right-to-reply” law. Likewise, Judge Newson wrote social-media sites exercise “editorial judgment to curate the content that they display and disseminate.” That said, Elon Musk, who has made an offer to buy Twitter, says he would reverse the ban on Trump, as would be his right.

BIG TECH IS NO SAINT

DeSantis isn’t entirely wrong about the need to hold tech companies accountable and about users’ lack of control over their personal information. The appellate court allowed parts of the Florida law to stand, some of which are reasonable. That was enough for Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody to try to spin in a tweet that the court’s decision as victory for the state. No quite. Still, for example, the law requires social-media platforms to publish their standards for determining how they censor, de-platform and “shadow ban” users. That’s overdue accountability we can support.

Tech’s slew of problematic business practices range from Facebook’s role in Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election to a whistle blower’s testimony to Congress about the company’s knowledge that its platforms harm young girls. Democrats and Republicans recognize such companies must be reined in, but they’re limited by a 1996 federal law known as Section 230 that shields online platform from lawsuits over what their users post. Yet congressional inaction is unacceptable.

If conservatives want to force social-media sites to allow users who violate their policies to remain on their platform, then they can’t cry foul if liberal states compel these companies to ban people spreading misinformation. The latter is actually what threatens our democracy and augments polarization, not the perceived “censorship” of conservative voices by “woke” tech corporations. A New York University study published last year found the claim that platforms target right-wing content for removal is “a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.”

Falsehood or not, DeSantis has helped galvanize the misguided belief that conservatives are the victims of “Big Tech oligarchs.” He can still claim credit for fighting the “good fight” even if he’s tilting at wind mills and losing his battle in court — at taxpayers’ expense.

Florida would be much better served by tech reforms that actually accomplish something and if the governor used his bully pulpit to push Congress, where this issue belongs, to act.

END