By Elizabeth Koh
Three contested constitutional amendments -- one banning greyhound racing, another that would require Miami-Dade County voters to elect a sheriff and one on crime victims' rights -- will be on the ballot despite lawsuits that challenged their language, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday. A fourth amendment that would have created a path to expand the state's oversight of charter schools was narrowly struck down, meaning Floridians for now are set to vote on 12, rather than 13 amendments come November.
The decisions -- two of which overturned the rulings of lower courts -- will provide some clarity to officials who need to print vote-by-mail ballots in time for the election, though another case being appealed by the state could challenge three more amendments that were set to be on the ballot. All of the contested amendments were crafted by the Constitution Revision Commission, which has the power to put constitutional changes before voters when it meets once every 20 years.
Each of the proposed state constitutional amendments on the ballot must be approved by at least 60 percent of voters to become law.
The state Supreme Court handed down its rulings two days after justices heard arguments for and against Amendment 6, which adds rights for crime victims and amends requirements for judges. The amendment rolls together multiple proposals that would increase judges' required retirement age from 70 to 75 and change how judges defer to state agencies in certain cases. The main "bill of rights" for victims section, modeled after Marsy's Law in California, would add rights including the disclosure of information to victims. It drew support from major Republican and Democratic lawmakers but also has been criticized for potentially flooding the justice system with additional responsibilities.
The amendment was briefly thrown out by a Leon County circuit court judge last month, leading the state to appeal the decision up to the state Supreme Court. Attorneys for plaintiffs in the case contended Wednesday that voters should not be allowed to consider the amendment because it was drafted with language that misled voters. They cited what they said were omissions in the ballot language that failed to sufficiently describe the effects of the changes. But lawyers on behalf of the state asserted that the language fairly described the purpose of the amendment, and the high court agreed in a narrow 4-3 decision.
In a brief order, the state Supreme Court announced that Amendment 6 would stay on the ballot and that it would provide justification for its decision "at a later date."
The high court also issued two detailed opinions preserving Amendments 10 and 13 on the ballot Friday. The high court had heard arguments late last month on Amendment 13, which would ban greyhound racing by 2020, after the Florida Greyhound Association sued to remove the proposed ban from the ballot and called the language used to describe it misleading.
There are about a dozen racing tracks in Florida, and the practice has drawn criticism from animal rights advocates who assert that the sport is inhumane. A Leon County circuit court judge ruled last month to strike the amendment from the ballot, agreeing with arguments that the ballot language insufficiently captured the scope of the amendment. But the state's Supreme Court justices ruled 6-1 to restore it and held that the circuit court had erred in doing so.
The justices also ruled to preserve Amendment 10 Friday, which would require some county-level officers to be elected, after it was upheld by a lower court.
Amendment 10, which links four proposals related to governmental operations, has particular implications for Miami-Dade County. The most contentious part of the amendment would require five county-level offices -- including tax collectors, property appraisers, supervisors of elections, sheriffs and clerks of circuit court -- to be elected positions. Though most counties already hold elections for all of those positions, a few do not. Miami-Dade, for example, is the only county that does not elect a sheriff and instead has an appointed police director.
Opponents of the proposal have argued that it would violate the county's home-rule charter and that putting it on the statewide ballot would allow non-Miami-Dade voters to overrule those in the county. But supporters have said requiring elections for the positions statewide would bring public accountability to the role. (The other proposals in the amendment would set the state's legislative session to automatically start in January rather than March in even-numbered years, create a counter-terrorism office and make the state veterans affairs department constitutionally required.)
Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia counties, which would be among those affected, challenged the amendment up to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the amendment did not sufficiently inform voters it would change the structure of their local governments. But justices disagreed that the ballot language was imprecise and ruled unanimously to keep it on the ballot.
In doing so, they also declined to acknowledge another facet of some amendments that has been used to contest them in court: how multiple proposals were bundled together in blocks. Though the state constitution has a "single-subject" limit for constitutional amendments that are brought to voters through citizen initiatives, it does not apply the same standard to those proposed by the CRC, which the justices noted in their opinion.
That counter-argument may not bode well for another case involving three more "bundled" amendments that may also reach the high court. Retired state Supreme Court chief justice Harry Lee Anstead and former Florida elections commissioner Robert Barnas brought a case last month calling for all six of the CRC's "logrolling" amendments to be thrown out, alleging that the way the amendments are lumped together prevents voters from being able to vote on specific proposals.
A Leon County circuit court judge ruled this week to throw three of those amendments -- 7, 9 and 11 -- off the ballot. The state has said it is contesting the decision.
(c)2018 Miami Herald