Editorial Roundup: Florida

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Jan. 22

The Palm Beach post on convicted felons having to pay fines before they are allowed to vote:

By ruling that former felons must pay all financial obligations before getting back their right to vote, the increasingly conservative Florida Supreme Court has ignored the will of the people — the nearly two-thirds of Florida voters who in 2018 approved Amendment 4.

Rather, the court confirmed the will of the amendment’s opponents: the Republican-led Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis and others who, justice be damned, fear the prospect of tens of thousands more potential Democratic voters on the rolls, especially in this crucial election year.

This won’t be the last word. A federal appeals court is hearing oral arguments next week in Atlanta on a lawsuit challenging the state law, passed last year, that kneecapped the amendment with its requirement that felons pay back all fees, fines and restitution before they can cast a ballot. Hopefully, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal will declare the state’s law on Amendment 4 as an unconstitutional suppression of the right to vote.

A federal district court judge in Tallahassee already ruled, in October, that if felons are too poor to pay the obligations, they must still be allowed to vote. DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee appealed that decision.

DeSantis, finding some political cover on Tuesday (Jan. 21), proposed -- and the Florida Cabinet approved -- a revamped clemency rule that will allow felons who have waited at least seven years after they have completed their time behind bars and have fulfilled other requirements but owe restitution to victims to request a hearing from the clemency board.

But we agree with Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat on the Cabinet, who said the revamped rule, while a good “first step,” doesn’t go far enough.

“This only actually applies to citizens that require a board hearing by rule. This will have no effect on the current backlog of over 10,000 pending RCR (restoration of civil rights) applications,” Fried said.

The revised clemency rule could satisfy the federal judge’s ruling that the state must have a way for felons who cannot afford to pay “legal financial obligations” to register to vote.

But it’s unfortunate that the more than 5 million Floridians who voted for Amendment 4 — assuming that serving all prison, parole and probation time was enough of a debt for most felons to repay to get back their voting rights — have to once again rely on a federal court to force our state to do what’s right.

But they’re far from alone in this fight.

Two prominent libertarian groups have filed briefs in the federal case, arguing that SB 7066 is fundamentally unfair. The state law “violates the bedrock guarantee that every citizen enjoys,” said the R Street Institute and Cato Institute (backed by billionaire Charles Koch). Without a judge’s injunction, they said, the law “will have the effect of excluding a great number of people from voting because of their poverty, while allowing similarly situated wealthy persons to vote.”

To their great credit, court officials and elections supervisors in Florida’s largest counties are trying to untangle this mess. They are working to cut away court fees and fines from a convicted person’s felony sentence, treating the unpaid fees more like civil lawsuits (restitution to crime victims remains part of the sentence). Each convicted person has to petition the court individually for this to happen.

It’s a laborious process and, so far, only about 20 to 25 felons have obtained the judges’ order they need in Palm Beach County, State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office said.

In another work-around, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the main organization behind Amendment 4, is collecting donations to pay off felons’ penalties. So far, they’ve initiated 2,700 registrations — a wonderful thing for those individuals but nowhere close to solving a problem affecting hundreds of thousands.

This all feels so unnecessary.

Floridians sought to demolish a disgraceful tradition lingering from Reconstruction. This state, to its shame, has barred an estimated 1.4 million people, many of them black and poor, from the ballot box for life unless they manage to secure a reprieve from the state Clemency Board. It is by far the largest such disenfranchisement in the United States.

Amendment 4, which does not apply to murders or felony sex offenders, was never intended to erect a new sort of obstacle. It wasn’t meant to put voting out of reach for vast numbers of people because they lack the money to pay fees and fines. That is uncomfortably close to a poll tax, the vile Jim Crow voter suppression tactic that was made unconstitutional in the 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964.

The Supreme Court’s opinion, based on a “textual,” or literal, reading of the amendment’s wording, ignores the insurmountable obstacles to voting that pay-up requirement often creates in real life.

First, of course, it is extraordinarily difficult for ex-cons to obtain the jobs and incomes they need to pay back the court-ordered costs; it can take decades, leaving them permanently disenfranchised.

More maddening, there are no central state databases to show how much one owes. More maddening still, most of the poor who are disenfranchised simply owe court fees — literally, administrative fees to cover the cost of court functions.

We hope that the state continues to revise the clemency rules to fix this issue. But until then, we must look to the federal court system to force Florida to do the right thing.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/

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Jan. 21

The Orlando Sentinel on sheriffs enforcing an assault weapons ban:

At a recent meeting of a gun rights group, Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma was asked during a Q&A whether he would enforce an assault weapons ban.

Specifically, he was asked about a proposed constitutional amendment’s provision that would allow people who currently own such weapons to keep them, but only if they registered the firearm.

“It’s not only that I wouldn’t, the majority of sheriffs across the state would not do it,” the sheriff responded. In other words, he would not uphold his oath to the state constitution. The crowd ate it up.

Lemma has since elaborated on his comments to the Sentinel, saying that if the amendment passed his office wouldn’t go looking for people who had failed to register their weapons. But if deputies encountered an unregistered assault weapon through, say, serving a search warrant as part of a drug investigation, they would uphold the law.

That’s a big difference from his original answer.

Good to hear. But let’s remember Lemma said there are lots more Florida sheriffs who wouldn’t enforce constitutionally mandated gun registration, should it come to pass.

If not, they wouldn’t be the first. Sheriffs across the country are breaking their oaths and refusing to uphold laws they’ve decided are unconstitutional restrictions on gun ownership.

In Colorado, some sheriffs suggested they wouldn’t enforce “red flag” laws, which allow authorities to get a court order to seize weapons from someone believed to pose a danger to themselves or others.

Sheriffs in Oregon declared they wouldn’t enforce any new federal gun laws that infringe on Second Amendment rights. One sheriff went a step further, saying he wouldn’t tolerate the feds enforcing such laws within his jurisdiction.

A few years ago the sheriff of Liberty County was accused of freeing a man one of his deputies had arrested for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. The sheriff was charged with trying to cover it up by altering jail logs — all in the name of protecting the suspect’s gun rights. The sheriff was acquitted. (Postscript: The man he freed was arrested and charged with using a gun to commit second-degree murder.)

The Liberty County sheriff was aligned with a 50-year-old movement called “constitutional sheriffs,” whose dangerous underpinnings involve a belief in the legal supremacy of the elected sheriff over state and federal authorities. There’s even a group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which views sheriffs as akin to the saviors of American ideals.

Similarly, hundreds of cities and counties across the nation have declared their intent to defy gun laws they don’t like, presumably based on their own constitutional interpretations.

Last fall Lake County’s commission — with the support of Lake Sheriff Peyton Grinnell — voted unanimously to become one of hundreds of local governments to declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” The county’s resolution is a series of declarations about firearm freedoms and says sheriffs are the “last protector of the U.S. Constitution.”

The practical effect of the resolution is vague, and possibly meaningless, but it continues a pattern of local officials asserting they are not subject to certain laws that, in their judgment, don’t comport with the federal or state constitutions’ guarantees of the right to bear arms.

That’s not how it works.

We’re a nation of laws. Some we like. Others we don’t. People who swear an oath to uphold the state and federal constitutions — we’re looking at you, sheriffs — don’t get to pick and choose as if these documents were a restaurant menu.

Constitutional rights are not absolute. Threats to kill someone aren’t protected under free speech. Polygamy isn’t protected under freedom of religion. Unpermitted rallies and marches aren’t protected under freedom of assembly.

If sheriffs feel aggrieved by new gun laws, they can try to find relief through the courts, which have ruled numerous times in favor of gun rights.

Lemma’s comments surprised us because he’s become a respected figure in Central Florida, in part by helping lead the community’s fight against the opioid plague. He’s not another flame-throwing sheriff (which are plentiful in Florida).

We suspect Lemma was playing to the crowd with his comment about not enforcing registration, though the sheriff noted that attendees were less enthusiastic about his advocacy for Florida’s "red flag” law.

That’s politics, we suppose. But with law enforcers more openly questioning their willingness to enforce gun regulations, it’s important for leaders like Lemma to clearly convey that the law matters, even those we might not like.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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Jan. 17

The Miami Herald on the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Kudos to Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, D-Miami, and Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, for standing up to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCADV), a small and secretive operation with an exceptional skill at making friends in high places.

The lawmakers propose to strip FCADV of its cushy contract with the Department of Children & Families (DCF). The legislation was crafted with help from DCF and deserves to be passed swiftly and signed in to law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Like many businesses blessed with not-for-profit tax status and a motherhood-and-apple pie kind of name, FCADV flew under the radar for decades.

That changed, Bean said, when the Miami Herald’s Elizabeth Koh reported on FCADV’s failure to cooperate with state auditors and the more than $750,000 annual salary being paid to its long-time president & CEO, Tiffany Carr.

Secrecy and a princely salary for the boss might make sense for a Domestic Violence Underground Railroad run by a 21st century Harriet Tubman who risks her life running ’round-the-clock rescue operations. It does not make sense for FCADV, which is in the business of “addressing the administration of domestic violence in the state,” according to its current CEO, former state senator Denise Grimsley.

Specifically, FCADV is what the state calls a “lead agency.” It receives roughly $35 million in taxpayer dollars and passes the money through to 42 community-based domestic-violence centers, which it also “oversees.”

Florida enacted a law in 2003 granting FCADV exclusive rights to serve as the lead agency for domestic violence. It was a major coup and a sweet deal for Carr, and one not enjoyed by DCF’s lead agencies providing management and oversight services for other, equally vulnerable populations, including abused and neglected children, elders and the disabled.

Monopoly begets mischief, and Carr’s deal would get a whole lot sweeter in the years that followed.

By 2017, her compensation had climbed to $761,000 annually, according to Internal Revenue Service documents. Koh’s reporting revealed possible discrepancies between Carr’s compensation as reported to the IRS and her salary as reported to the state in 2018, provoking DCF to take a closer look.

Since most of FCADV’s finances come from the state, DCF had every right to expect cooperation.

Instead, FCADV stonewalled, refusing to produce documents necessary for DCF to conduct a proper audit.

As bad publicity piled up, Carr stepped down from her leadership posts, claiming a long-running “significant health diagnosis.” Grimsley, Carr’s replacement, admits to being a “dear friend” of Carr, and is keeping her on as a consultant.

Grimsley claims that the reforms offered by Bean and Fernandez-Barquin in SB 1482 and HB 1087 “will have a significant, negative impact on the victims of domestic violence if adopted.”

That’s an insult to every lead agency that doesn’t have the luxury of being carved in statutory stone and the arrogance to sandbag a state investigation. It’s also ludicrous. Florida is full of people who know how to administer contracts and live on less than $761,000.

To be sure, the bills will have a significant and negative impact on Carr & Co., which explains why Grimsley has urged her former legislative colleagues not to take “such a draconian approach.” She’ll be aided in her effort to fend off the badly needed housecleaning by Brian Ballard, a lobbyist known for his ability to make lawmakers perform like trained seals.

If FCADV is interested in saving lives, as opposed to protecting lucrative fiefdoms, its time would be better spent rescuing the federal Violence Against Women Act, which is currently on life support in Washington.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/