Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. May 11, 2024.

Editorial: Censored by the Bar

It is an offense against the people of Florida for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointments to have turned the state Supreme Court into a predictable fountain of right-wing opinions. The latest is its April 1 decision upholding the sweeping new ban on abortion.

What’s more worrisome, as we’ve said before, is the voluminous silence from the state’s leading lawyers. They should know and fear the most about what happens to democratic government when courts become echo chambers of governors, presidents or parliaments. Consider Russia, China, Iran, Myanmar and other dictatorships.

Israeli citizens took to the streets, week after week, to protect their supreme court.

The Florida situation is worse than we knew.

Silenced opposition

George Felos, a Dunedin lawyer with particular expertise in privacy, the constitutional right that the court eviscerated last month, tried to speak up.

He wrote a letter to the Florida Bar News, the monthly newspaper issued by the Florida Bar, finding fault not only in how the court glibly abandoned privacy but also with how several justices injected personal beliefs into the case. While narrowly approving an abortion rights initiative for inclusion on the Nov. 5 ballot, several justices hinted at eventually foiling it by declaring fetal personhood.

The Sun Sentinel printed a shortened version of that letter on this page Friday.

The Florida Bar News’ editor, Mark Killian, refused to print Felos’ letter. He also said it would not be acceptable as a paid advertisement.

“While we value different perspectives and constructive criticism,” he emailed Felos, “your letter contains personal attacks on sitting justices by impugning their motives by name.”

That was censorship.

Are Florida’s justices so high and mighty that they can’t be criticized? Are their motives beyond questioning? Why have retention elections every six years if those who know the most about the justices and the law aren’t free to say what they know?

No criticism by name

We asked Killian to answer some questions about his decision. He didn’t reply, so we asked the Bar’s lead spokesperson, Jennifer Krell Davis, whether the agency has any policies, overt or implicit, to discourage criticism of the court.

“In his letter,” she replied, “Mr. Felos directly criticizes the justices by name, saying they have allowed personal beliefs to sway their decisions. We consider that a personal attack on their integrity as jurists.”

Apart from his letter, she said, in answer to another question, “The Florida Bar News does not have any record of receiving any letter submissions criticizing any specific Supreme Court decision or justice since January 2019.”

That’s when three retirements enabled DeSantis to begin radicalizing the court. Florida’s 110,000 lawyers have gone silent in the only publication they all read.

From one angle, it’s easy to see why. The Bar officials’ objections closely track language in Florida’s Code of Professional Responsibility (Rule 4-8.2), which inhibits criticism of judges. Lawyers can be reprimanded, suspended or even disbarred for violating the code — and it’s the Supreme Court that decides their fate.

But the rule that hangs over their head is not an absolute prohibition. Here’s what it says, with some key words italicized: “A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge…”

That allows for judgment calls. If Felos or any other lawyers are willing to stand behind what they want to say about a judge’s qualifications and conduct, they should be allowed to express it. And the Bar’s newspaper should print it.

The reasons given Felos could conceivably lead to disbarring a lawyer for expressing the well-founded and widely held opinion that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is unethical.

Consider the source

The Bar’s timidity owes to it being an agency of the Supreme Court itself.

That derives from the Supreme Court’s constitutional powers to adopt rules for the courts and to license and discipline lawyers. Bar membership has been mandatory for all lawyers since 1950.

The profession would rather be under the court than the Legislature, a threat that lawmakers have made on occasion to keep the lawyers quiet.

Threat of legislative control muted the Bar’s opposition to a 2001 law that weakened its influence and allowed the governor to appoint all nine members of each Judicial Nominating Commission. That effectively eliminated judicial independence, which is essential to the honesty of the courts.

With the Bar being a dutiful agency of the court, there’s no other statewide entity to speak out for the independence of the judiciary when it is so seriously threatened — as it was in 2001, and as it is now. Those who still care about that should consider organizing an independent voice.

We don’t recommend putting the Bar under the Legislature’s governance. That would be no better, and quite likely worse.

But there surely need to be more lawyers speaking out like George Felos.


Orlando Sentinel. May 9, 2024.

Editorial: DeSantis should set his sights on vetoing kill-a-bear bill

If you are among the small minority of Florida residents who like the idea of suburban neighborhoods turning into shooting ranges with black bears as targets, then you probably are getting a little impatient right now. It’s been two months since the Legislature passed a bill that would allow anyone to open fire when they feel threatened by a bear — year-round, anywhere in the state. Since then, the bill has been hanging out in legislative limbo, waiting to be delivered to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature or veto.

Floridians who prefer bears to be alive (or Floridians who aren’t cheerful about the idea of bullets flying in their residential neighborhoods) — are probably hoping for a veto. That’s the smart choice. There is almost no constituency for this measure. And there are better, safer ways to manage Florida’s increasingly urbanized bear population. DeSantis knows all this. He should honor science and public sentiment, and kill this bill (HB 87) as soon as it arrives in his office.

Florida loves bears

There’s no doubt that bears are becoming more comfortable with humans. They have no choice. The vast wilderness where they once wandered has been erased under the relentless expansion of subdivisions and strip malls. Given their druthers, bears are about 75% vegetarian, but they’re not at all picky. With the grasses and berries they once consumed becoming harder to find, they are learning that humans often leave food unsecured. There have been some amusing stories — bears raiding Halloween candy or swiping alcoholic beverages. But for the most part, sightings result in a hasty retreat by the bear, the human or both.

When he was pushing this legislation, bill sponsor Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, depicted a wide and active threat from bears. The statistics compiled by FWC tell an entirely different story. Most years there are just a few physical encounters between humans and bears — most involving dogs, who often display the kind of aggression that tends to provoke a defensive response from bears.

While Shoaf claimed he was trying to defend those innocent dog-walkers, the reality undermined his argument. Shooting a bear that represents an active threat has always been legal. Most people don’t walk their dogs while toting shotguns. This bill would be far more likely to protect people who go out looking for bears to shoot.

Memories of slaughter

There’s no doubt that this legislation — should DeSantis sign it — would provoke a defensive response from Floridians who understand the bears’ fight for survival. After all, this isn’t the first time in recent memory when state leaders have embraced the idea of slaughtering bears. In October 2015, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission authorized a two-day bear hunt that ended with the slaughter of about 300 animals — including 38 lactating mother bears, raising the specter that the unofficial death toll might have missed a number of cubs too young to feed themselves. One of the hunts’ epicenters was Seminole County, which reports a significant number of the state’s human-bear encounters.

“We have cubs without mothers, taken prematurely,” Chuck O’Neal, a local environmentalist, told the Sentinel days after the hunt. “They did not finish learning what they needed to learn … This was a horrible, horrible, horrible chapter in Florida history.”

But Seminole County leaders did learn from the hunt. After the hunt, they launched one of the state’s most comprehensive bear-management programs. Working with the FWC, the county helped distribute bear-proof trash cans and educate residents about other ways to secure outdoor food sources. That’s part of a greater public-education campaign that teaches county residents how to peacefully (mostly) co-exist with the lumbering ursine population.

That’s the kind of program state leaders should be encouraging. Killing this bill would be a good start.


Palm Beach Post. May 10, 2024.

Editorial: Property insurance isn’t just a Florida problem anymore. Congress needs to help.

Whether it’s wildfires in Arizona and Oregon, tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma, hurricanes in North Carolina, Virginia and of course, Florida, extreme weather is changing the actuarial landscape.

It’s an unsettling routine many Florida property owners know all too well: Property insurers either raising premiums to exorbitant and unaffordable rates or dropping customers like a bad habit. It’s no longer a problem confined to the Sunshine State, though. Unfortunately, our elected officials in Washington have failed to keep up with the trend.

Whether it’s wildfires in Arizona and Oregon, tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma, hurricanes in North Carolina, Virginia and of course, Florida, extreme weather fueled by a changing climate is changing the nation’s actuarial landscape — and not to the policyholder’s advantage. Congress has kept its head in the sand long enough. Now it must give urgent consideration to a federal role in providing storm coverage.

The idea of the feds overseeing stand-alone windstorm and other extreme-weather coverage is nothing new. It’s just a concept that’s fallen from favor, and even from view. In its place, any help to frustrated homeowners has fallen to the states, leaving consumers more than ever at the mercy of the insurance industry.

One in 13 homeowners across the U.S. is uninsured, according to a recent study by the Consumer Federation of America. That number is expected to grow. Florida, a seasonal target of hurricanes, used to be the insurance industry standard for of walling off risks and letting locals resolve their problems. The effects of a warming climate have changed all that. There are only so many proverbial “walls” that the industry can build.

A larger swath of American homeowners struggles to find affordable property insurance. Residents in a growing number of “high-risk” states are facing higher premiums and larger deductibles, and they’re the lucky ones. A dreaded non-renewal letter forces many other homeowners to look elsewhere for coverage or “go bare,” doing without property insurance altogether.

Insurers are pulling out of California, a state that has seen 137 wildfires this year alone. Non-renewal notices and premium hikes are surging in Arizona, Nevada and Washington due to the growing number of wildfires. In North Carolina, state officials had proposed a 42% rate increase in homeowner insurance that was rejected by the state’s insurance commissioner as “excessive and unfairly discriminatory.” Last year, state lawmakers in Colorado set up a state-backed “insurer of last resort,” joining Florida and two dozen other states that have set up similar agencies to provide a semblance of affordable coverage.

Florida no role model for coverage

Been there, done that in Florida. Big losses from years of storms have scared off most big-name insurance firms from writing property insurance here. In their place sits Citizens Property Insurance, and a slew of smaller firms that are more susceptible to the costs of inflation, natural disasters and higher reinsurance rates. Citizens, Florida’s supposed “insurer of last resort,” has become the state’s largest carrier. Right now, it is in the midst of both dropping customers and sending them to more expensive private firms, and a congressional probe into its solvency.

Worse, there’s a growing recognition that state efforts to help curb insurance costs haven’t worked. For years, the industry has bemoaned lawsuits and bad actors as the primary reason for high insurance rates in the Sunshine State. Florida officials complied by largely tamping down efforts to legally seek redress on insurers that were unresponsive to claims and offering the industry money to help firms cover their own re-insurance costs to provide coverage.

The impact of climate change was largely left unsaid by the industry and probably would have fallen on deaf ears anyway. Florida is scheduled to repeal a 16-year-old law that lists climate change as a priority when making energy policy decisions. The bill, awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature, would strip the term “climate change” from much of state law. For a state that’s seen to be the most vulnerable to extreme weather, the change is, well, ludicrous.

If Florida and the alarming property insurance trends nationwide are any indication, homeowners seeking affordable property insurance shouldn’t expect much help from state governments alone. Federal intervention is essential, whether in requiring better data to assess coverage needs or in considering a program similar to the current National Flood Insurance. Congress has its share of difficult and intractable issues. Add property insurance to the list. But must we wait for a climate disaster to expect our representatives to act?