Editorial Roundup: Florida

Miami Herald. October 2, 2021.

Editorial: Want voters to trust the redistricting process? Start with listening to them

The once-a-decade process of drawing new boundaries for legislative and congressional seats has started in Tallahassee. It’s mired in legalese, frustrating to follow, wildly partisan, takes forever — and is incredibly important.

Where district boundaries are drawn determines who can vote for which representative. Those decisions can make the difference in which party wins a seat, which communities are represented and, ultimately, who controls the Legislature and — in some cases — Congress. In other words, redistricting is about power.

And it is Florida legislators themselves who draw up those new voting maps, creating an inherent conflict. (The phrase “fox guarding the hen house” might spring to mind.)

If ever there were a process that should be laid out carefully for voters for their input and scrutiny — especially in a post-Trump world — this is it. Yet there are worrying questions about how committed the Republican-run Florida Legislature is to making that happen.

And, as Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who studies redistricting told the Editorial Board, “In these highly polarized times, it matters quite a bit.”

The two Republicans leading the redistricting work — Rep. Tom Leek from Ormond Beach and Sen. Ray Rodrigues from Estero — have said they are not certain they will have public hearings to collect input on how communities want to see the maps modified, as reported by the Miami Herald Sept. 24.

Pandemic delays have put the complicated process behind schedule. But when Democratic Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura, the ranking Democrat on the House Redistricting Committee, suggested that lawmakers hold virtual meetings to hear from voters, he got little traction with Leek. According to the Herald story, Leek said it wouldn’t be “feasible” to hold such an event in every community and therefore would give an advantage to more densely population areas, aka urban areas.

Leek missed the memo, apparently: Virtual meetings can be accessed on computers, regardless of location. Even if the schedule is very tight, surely some virtual meetings could be arranged to ensure voters are heard.

OTHER OPTIONS

Meetings, whether virtual or in person, aren’t the only way for the public to keep track of what’s going on. RepresentUS, a nonpartisan group, has teamed up with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to create the Redistricting Report Card. The site evaluates states’ proposed voting maps and flags gerrymandering — when districts are drawn specifically to tilt political power in favor of one party — as it’s happening. That could provide a valuable oversight on legislative decisions.

The House and Senate redistricting committees also have a website, Floridaredistricting.gov, with map-drawing software for the public to use to suggest where district boundaries should be placed. Geller suggested that legislative staff members could present a summary of the maps submitted by the public so that the process is not just driven by legislators. We like that idea.

But we’re still not convinced that the public will have enough of a voice in this process.

While we hear Florida Republicans loudly asserting they’ll follow strict guidelines for transparency, hard experience has made us highly skeptical. That goes back to the last round of redistricting a decade ago, which — after years in court — revealed a scheme by the GOP to undermine the process so completely that the maps for state Senate and Congress were tossed and had to be redrawn.

Here’s how bad it was: GOP political operatives drew their own maps and then submitted them under fake names through a portal set up to receive public input. Meanwhile, real citizens attended meetings across the state in good faith — meetings set up by Florida House and Senate leaders who were supposedly trying to find ways to fairly represent communities.

That resulted in tainted maps that, nonetheless, were used in the 2012 and 2014 elections before the courts threw them out.

PUBLIC LEFT OUT

Republicans treated the public like chumps by creating a shadow redistricting process, as the Herald wrote back then. That’s pretty hard to forgive, let alone forget.

Remember also that, in 2010, Floridians approved the Fair Districts amendments, constitutional measures designed to stop that kind of abuse. The amendments are supposed to serve as a check on legislative power by prohibiting lawmakers from drawing maps to benefit incumbents or political parties, among other requirements. And yet in the very first test of those amendments, GOP lawmakers failed utterly — and betrayed the electorate.

This time around, Rodrigues — who has questioned whether public hearings “makes sense in Florida” — is swearing that he is clear on what will pass legal muster. House and Senate leaders have ordered legislators to record and preserve all communication related to drawing maps. The House will only allow staff and legislators — not political consultants — to draw maps. Both chambers said they will use political data as a way to help them determine if they are preserving minority districts, as required by the Florida Constitution. There are other rules as well.

That’s a fine start, but it’s still a long way from rebuilding trust with voters.

Redistricting happens every 10 years, yes, but this time feels different. After a one-term Trump presidency, claims of a stolen election and a violent mob’s attempt to seize the U.S. Capitol, political divides have become chasms. Layer the politically-fraught process of redistricting on top of that, add in the enormous betrayal of voters by the GOP in the last redistricting cycle, and even the smallest decisions about redrawing districts loom large.

Rodrigues insists that the redistricting process is starting out with a “blank slate.” We don’t see it that way. We think the Republicans, with their tainted record, are starting with a huge deficit. Want voters to trust the process? Try listening to them.

___

Palm Beach Post. October 1, 2021.

Editorial: Before more children are maimed, Florida needs to weed out bad doctors

Dr. Berto Lopez, an OB-GYN whose trail of injury and death was the subject of an investigation by The Palm Beach Post, is the kind of physician who should have been run out the profession years ago. Despite allegations he caused a punctured small intestine that led to a death, babies left with severe brain damage due to a delayed caesarean section, and damaged penises resulting from shoddy circumcisions – it would take 33 years, an eternity for Dr. Lopez’ victims, before the state Board of Medicine finally stripped him of his license.

It’s a broken system that needs to be fixed before more people die. Before more children are maimed.

Voters in Florida may have thought they gave their state government a straight-forward process for removing dangerous doctors -- like Lopez -- from the profession. In 2004, they changed the Florida Constitution to do just that. In an ideal world, the “three strikes malpractice law” should have become a reliable protection for medical patients. Instead state lawmakers turned it into a license to kill.

Florida procedures clearly favor health care providers over patients. The current system relies too heavily on malpractice lawsuits and final judgments that physicians can easily avert by settling complaints before those lawsuits are ever filed. Change will only come with new laws and attitudes – no easy fix in a state where elected officials have bent over backwards to protect influential medical and insurance industries.

The Public Protection Repeated Medical Malpractice Act is the citizens’ initiative that requires doctors with three findings of malpractice to lose their license. The three strikes and they’re out provision was an easily understood reform that won approval with 71 percent of the vote.

But forgive us if the next part sounds familiar: Engaged citizens who believe their elected leaders have routinely ignored a particular problem amend the state constitution only to have the Florida Legislature and the governor do an end run around their intent. Florida has a long history of thwarting ballot initiatives, from the Class Size Amendment and the restoration of felons’ rights to setting aside money to conserve unspoiled lands, and voter approval on casino gambling. The Three Strikes amendment would be no exception.

The Legislature wasted no time undoing the amendment, which was vilified by healthcare and insurance lobbyists as a law that would produce frivolous lawsuits and high malpractice insurance premiums. In that setting, state lawmakers made changes that would make it difficult to levy one strike against a bad doctor, much less three.

The new rules crafted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Jeb Bush allow a strike after a lawsuit results in a judgment of malpractice, or after a finding by an arbitrator or the Board of Medicine. After that, the board uses a stricter standard to determine if what the arbitrator, board or court did met the threshold of a strike. Doctors often try to settle malpractice cases or disciplinary actions to keep their medical licenses. If that occurs, there’s no finding and without a finding there’s no strike.

The system served Lopez well. His first “strike” should have occurred in 1988, when an infant died because Lopez didn’t perform a C-section. By the time the Three Strikes amendment was approved, Lopez had another four allegations of malpractice against him, including that he ignored a pathology report and failed to remove a dead fetus from a pregnant woman who later gave birth to the remains in a friend’s bathroom. The doctor would continue practicing medicine in Palm Beach County until February, when the Board of Medicine, after several complaints and the Post’s investigative reporting, decided to revoke his license.

You’d think the heinous allegations made against Lopez would prompt the state to take action. There had been no disciplinary action, however, by the state Department of Health, which is responsible for investigating malpractice complaints and forwarding those with probable cause to the Board of Medicine. That is, until 2004. In that case, the board reprimanded Lopez, who agreed to a settlement. But the next year, lawmakers approved restrictions that prohibited considering any malpractice that occurred before the amendment’s passage.

The right prescription is to change state law and procedures to more closely align with the “Three Strikes” amendment, so that bad doctors are easily identified and, when warranted, punished. Until then, expect behavior that would shame Hippocrates.

___

Orlando Sentinel. October 5, 2021.

Editorial: Rules should not prevent office holders such as Ashley Moody from being disbarred

In George Orwell’s classic novel “Animal Farm,” a parody on communism, a dictatorial pig named Napoleon corrupts the revolutionary slogan “all animals are equal” with the caveat “but some animals are more equal than others.”

That can happen in a democracy also.

Establishing a policy with no basis in the statutes or the Constitution, the Justice Department has held since 1973 that a U.S. president can’t be charged with a federal crime while he remains in office. No citizen is ever supposed to be above the law, yet somehow there is always one who is, at least temporarily.

(That seems to be stretching into a rather long time for Donald J. Trump.)

In Florida, some animals are definitely more equal than others.

There’s a loophole for constitutional officers who must be members of the Bar. That’s all judges, state attorneys, public defenders and the attorney general.

Like every other lawyer, they’re supposedly bound by an elaborate code of ethics that, among other things, prohibits them from burdening the courts with frivolous litigation or false claims. A disobedient lawyer can be suspended or disbarred.

To the public’s puzzlement and alarm, the Bar is now proposing a rule to clarify publicly that those who hold certain public office can’t be disciplined for code violations before they leave office. A serious flaw in the proposal precludes even beginning an investigation before that point, which could be many years after witnesses’ memories have faded.

Although no official rule is in place, these elected officials have enjoyed similar protections since the 1970s, when the Florida Supreme Court secretly halted an ethics probe against a state attorney over alleged misconduct in a civil matter he had handled before his election. The court held that because the constitution requires state attorneys to be members of the Bar, the potential penalty of disbarment would effectively remove one from office, usurping the governor’s suspension power.

The court kept that opinion out of the public record but the St. Petersburg Times sniffed it out. There was a similar unpublished outcome in 1980, according to the Bar, which is governed by the Florida Supreme Court. The court undoubtedly will approve the new rule. But it shouldn’t. Unethical lawyers should be expelled from any offices that require them to be lawyers, and the court should find a way to make that happen.

Why now?

The Bar isn’t saying, but the timing seems more than coincidental. The Bar’s Board of Governors took action to develop the new rule not long after the Bar had fended off a petition calling on it to investigate Attorney General Ashley Moody over her attempt to overturn President Joe Biden’s election. The petition was posted online by Pam Keith, a lawyer licensed in the District of Columbia who lives in Florida, and she said that it picked up 1,700 signatures.

Moody was one of the Republican attorneys general who joined Ken Paxton of Texas in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out Biden’s victories in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan. They claimed, without evidence, that there had been fraud, echoing Trump’s unfounded claims that had already been rejected by judges in those states. The court tossed the suit on a 7-2 vote, holding that Moody and the others had no standing to file it.

Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells sent Moody a letter saying her role in that “patently meritless case” was a discredit to the state and “a grave mark against your service as attorney general.”

He was 110% right. The attorney general is supposed to represent the people of Florida rather than act as a partisan hack for the benefit of Donald Trump or any other politician. The Paxton lawsuit, for which Paxton’s own state’s Bar is attempting to discipline him, fed the Big Lie that Trump continues to spout like an overflowing sewer. It is subversive in every sense of that word; it is a relentless effort to undermine the public’s faith that our elections are honest and fair. Moody contributed her name and her office to that subversion. She should be ashamed.

In that tawdry partisanship, she followed the sorry example of her predecessor, Pam Bondi, who blew off consumer complaints about the fraudulent Trump University right after soliciting and getting a campaign contribution from him. Bondi is now running Trump’s super PAC, polishing her claim to a Supreme Court seat if Trump returns to the White House.

The attorney general’s office is by far the most important of the Cabinet positions. In a sense, it is more critical than even the governor’s. For the “people’s lawyer,” as Florida used to call its attorney general, to be on the same wrong side of history as Trump hacks Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell is as much of a betrayal as Bondi’s and Moody’s earlier attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act through which more than 2.1 million Floridians receive health insurance.

As for Moody and Florida’s version of “Animal Farm,” the pass that the Bar is giving her is put to shame by what has been happening to Daniel Uhlfelder, a lawyer who doesn’t have the transitory immunity of being a constitutional officer.

A three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal, which is becoming almost indistinguishable from the governor’s office, called on the Bar to discipline and possibly disbar Uhlfelder for appealing a trial judge’s decision to dismiss his suit that attempted to force the governor to close North Florida beaches during the coronavirus pandemic. The trial judge had encouraged Uhlfelder to appeal. The court also ordered a state attorney to pursue sanctions against Uhlfelder for remarks he made criticizing the court.

Those cases have yet to play out. He could cut them short by winning election as a judge.

Or as attorney general.

Now there’s a thought.

___

South Florida Sun Sentinel. October 6, 2021.

Editorial: Desmond Meade deserves the respect that Florida denies him

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation last week awarded Desmond Meade one of its 2021 Genius Grants. Three years ago, Meade led the successful statewide ballot initiative for a constitutional amendment to modernize Florida’s 19th-century system for restoring the civil rights of ex-felons.

In choosing this year’s class, the foundation especially focused on climate and race — after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests. Meade is a worthy recipient of the $625,000 award.

While serving in the Army, Meade became a cocaine addict. After serving time in Florida on drug charges, Meade got his undergraduate degree from Miami-Dade College and graduated from Florida International University Law School in 2014.

As a convicted felon, however, Meade couldn’t take the Bar exam to actually practice. He couldn’t vote. Three years earlier, then-Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi had reversed the policy enacted under Gov. Charlie Crist that made it much easier for ex-felons to regain their civil rights, returning Florida to a policy that began in the Jim Crow era.

Amendment 4 makes history

So Meade formed the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The group got enough signatures to get Amendment 4 on the 2018 ballot. Sixty-four percent of voters approved the amendment, which automatically restored the rights of ex-felons “after they complete all terms of their service, including parole or probation.” Those convicted of murder or sexual offenses are excluded.

As the MacArthur Foundation noted, Meade “and collaborators enabled formerly incarcerated people to speak on their own behalf and to meet with policymakers, academics and community leaders … Meade’s campaign received a groundswell of support from diverse stakeholders across racial, socioeconomic, religious and political divides.”

That support ended with newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republicans in the Legislature. In writing the implementing legislation for the amendment, they defined “all terms” of a sentence to include fines, court costs and victim restitution.

Eighty percent of Florida’s estimated 700,000 to 800,000 ex-felons owe money in at least one of those three categories. The legislation thus gutted the intent of the amendment.

DeSantis and GOP leaders claimed they were defending the integrity of the system and crime victims. In fact, their motives were partisan.

Many Republicans believed that because ex-felons are disproportionately African-American, any surge in voter registrations would benefit Democrats, who get most of Florida’s African-American votes.

The first election for those newly enfranchised voters was for president last November in the nation’s largest swing state, but the results don’t support that belief. Like other Republicans outside Florida, GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch supported Amendment 4. Meade said often that the amendment was “apolitical.” It won large margins in traditionally Republican counties, outperforming DeSantis. In Sarasota County, the margin of approval was almost 2 to 1.

A pro-DeSantis court

Civil-rights groups challenged the financial restrictions and won at trial but lost 6-4 at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Two of six appellate court judges who voted to overturn the lower court’s decision had been appointed by DeSantis to the Florida Supreme Court before former President Donald Trump promoted them to the federal bench. Since DeSantis was part of the lawsuit, they should have recused themselves. Had they done so, the GOP’s appeal would have failed and Amendment 4 would be in effect as Meade and the voters intended.

You might think that DeSantis would be content to claim this shabby victory over Meade and move on. Wrong.

In March, for a second time, Meade appeared before the state Board of Clemency, which includes the governor and all three elected members of the Cabinet. Although Meade’s voting rights had been restored, he still needed a pardon to practice law and validate his redemption.

DeSantis refused. The governor, a Navy veteran, cited Meade’s dishonorable discharge, which stemmed from the time he spent in a brig for stealing to support his drug habit. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis cited a domestic violence accusation by Meade’s first wife.

Neither was a revelation. Meade has discussed in detail the life he overcame to become the person he is. Advocates for Meade say his ex-wife didn’t oppose the pardon. The man who resisted the urge to kill himself, got sober and remade himself looked much bigger on that day than the petty DeSantis.

The MacArthur Foundation said of Meade: “Despite setbacks, his bold vision for empowering returning citizens through mobilization and education serves as a blueprint for other states to follow. Meade is pushing the nation closer to democracy that represents the full extent of its citizens.”

Florida should share that vision.

END