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Florida editorial roundup

July 3, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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July 2

The Sun Sentinel on Florida Governor’s signing of a new bill effecting felon voter rights:

As Florida’s Capitol closed for the weekend last Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis quietly signed a law that places unwarranted and possibly unconstitutional financial burdens on felons who won the right to vote under Amendment 4 — or so they thought.

Any desire on DeSantis’ part to tiptoe around this raging controversy was soon dashed. His signature was barely dry when the first of four lawsuits surfaced, challenging the law’s constitutionality on the grounds that it makes voting subject to ability to pay.

The issue belongs in court. No legislative action should go unchecked that affects voting rights. The stakes are too high and Tallahassee history is fraught with political motives.

The cases were consolidated and assigned to U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee. He has repeatedly ruled against the state in election law cases, including his dismantling of a “fatally flawed” pre-Amendment 4 restoration of rights system last year and his separate finding that the state discriminated against college students by blocking early voting on campuses. The tenacious and fearless Walker will act in Floridians’ best interests.

Defendants include DeSantis’ chief elections officer, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, and 10 county election supervisors including Pete Antonacci in Broward, Christina White in Miami-Dade, and Bill Cowles in Orange County, where people with felony convictions, acting in good faith, have registered to vote since Jan. 8 when Amendment 4 took effect. Only later, some said, did they learn they still owe fees, fines or victim restitution. (SB 7066 included a grace period for people who registered without knowing, but it expired on July 1, another arbitrary factor subject to challenge.)

More than 5 million people overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 last November, a decision both resounding and historic that shattered the lifelong disenfranchisement of an estimated 1.4 million people, far more than any other state. The system dates to 1868, when it was used to prevent African-Americans from voting. But even after voters rendered their verdict last fall, the path to citizenship for felons faced one final, massive obstacle: the legislature.

As presented to voters, Amendment 4 would restore voting rights to most felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” In the 2019 session, the Legislature defined “all terms” to include all fees, fines and costs imposed as part of a sentence.

Republicans cite the words of Jon Mills of the University of Florida law school, who argued on behalf of Amendment 4 supporters when the ballot language was approved by the state Supreme Court last year. Mills told justices: “All terms means all terms.” As House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told the News Service of Florida: “Voters voted to give felons a second chance, but they didn’t vote to give them a free pass from accountability and payment of debt to society.”

But the result, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, Florida State Conference of the NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center and others, makes voting subject to the ability to pay, which is unjust on its face. A felon who can pay a fine can vote, but a felon who can’t will remain disenfranchised because of money, creating two classes. Paying debts is made more difficult because a conviction in Florida is a barrier to employment. No wonder critics of the law call it “a poll tax.”

Consider the case of Bonnie Raysor, 58, of Boynton Beach, a plaintiff in one lawsuit. After serving an 18-month sentence for drug-related crimes, she has unpaid fines and fees of $4,260. Released from prison in 2011, she earns $13 an hour as an office manager and can afford to pay only $30 a month, which means it will take her 12 years to pay off the debt, according to her suit. Raysor also has a teenage daughter in college and $48,000 in student loan debt.

The ACLU and others cite a line of cases to support the argument that financial requirements violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Twenty-Fourth Amendment’s ban on a poll tax. Quoting a 1966 Supreme Court decision that struck down Virginia’s poll tax, the ACLU argues that a state “violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard.”

The amount of unpaid fines and fees owed by felons is staggering. It totals more than $1 billion in South Florida alone, the Sun Sentinel has reported. Plaintiffs argue that Florida lacks accurate and centralized data legal financial obligations, and that uncertainty likely has a chilling effect on registering. In this morass, groups signing up new voters say they can’t be sure whether registrants have met “all terms.” There’s a lot to sort out, and the deadline to register for the March presidential preference primary is only eight months away.

This challenge to SB 7066 marks at least the eighth time in recent years that a legal challenge to state voting laws is before a federal court. Some may find this trend troubling, but we find it reassuring that the fate of Floridians’ basic constitutional rights must survive intense legal scrutiny.

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June 30

The Palm Beach Post on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to bar partisan gerrymandering challenges:

The U.S. Supreme Court let democracy down on Thursday.

Given the chance to correct some of the worst abuses of parties in power -- the extreme misshaping of legislative districts to make it easier for their members to get elected -- the newly installed conservative majority threw up its hands and said there was nothing it could do.

With the wrongheaded rationale that judicial oversight of such partisan abuses couldn’t be “politically neutral,” the justices decreed, 5-4, that no federal court anywhere may step in when a state’s election map is gerrymandered to the extreme.

The ruling gives a green light to sealing in Republican rule in many states where the GOP already holds power beyond its numbers. Democrats will no doubt gear up unseemly gerrymanders of their own.

In short, the Supreme Court all but assured that these purported United States of America will be even more divided in the years ahead.

We’re in a time when almost every state capital is controlled by a single party. Thirty-one states have all-Republican legislatures, 18 have all-Democratic ones; in 36 of these states, the majority party holds the governorship as well. That certainly describes Florida, where solid GOP rule in the state House, Senate and Governor’s Mansion has lasted a generation, despite an electorate that is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats (with 25 percent unaffiliated).

Anyone hoping that the federal courts would play umpire and sort out the extremely distorted maps contrived by political manipulators has to be bitterly disappointed. The Supreme Court had obvious Frankensteins of map-making in front of them: North Carolina, where in 2018 the GOP won nine of 12 congressional seats, despite getting only 50 percent of the vote. And Maryland, where Democrats acted just as greedily: though they never won more than 65 percent of the statewide congressional vote from 2012 to 2018, they took seven of eight House seats each time.

It’s just jaw-dropping that the highest court in the land could look at that and say, sorry, it’s not our job to fix it.

Floridians, to our credit, have done something about it. In 2010, the state’s voters passed two landmark ballot measures to implant antidotes to partisan gerrymandering in the state constitution. The Fair Districts Amendments make it illegal to draw up district maps for Congress or the state legislature that give a party or incumbent an advantage.

Yet old habits die hard. Even with the new law on the books, the Republican-led Legislature twice approved redistricting plans that heavily favored Republicans. Each time, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause went to court to get the schemes tossed out, while the state spent $8 million on the court cases to, essentially, keep Republicans in power.

Luckily, we had a Florida Supreme Court willing to reject those loaded maps. But Gov. Ron DeSantis has since replaced three liberal justices with conservatives. When the next challenge to a GOP-favoring district map comes around, there’s no guarantee this court will throw it out. And then where will voting-rights advocates go? As of Thursday, the federal courts are no longer an option.

About half the states have voter initiative systems akin to Florida’s -- and, as Floridians did, citizens in those states should work for redistricting reform where it’s needed. Congressional Democrats, for their part, are fighting this inequity with federal legislation, HR 1 (passed in the House, collecting dust in the Senate).

Gerrymandering, of course, is a political tradition as old as the republic, a gleeful indulgence of whatever party is in power. But it’s been weaponized in the age of Big Data, Republicans being the first to discover how to use computerized calculations to cluster the maximum number of Democratic voters into a minimum of districts -- to a granular degree, precinct-by-precinct, block-by-block. Thus, they assure that even a robust Democratic vote will produce just a small number of seats.

Our hope -- along with other reformers’ -- was that the Supreme Court would step in and say that this kind of back-room rigging of the election process is a gross violation of the long-held principle of “one man-one vote.”

The justices did agree that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the constitution. Even some conservatives said so.

But in a stinging dissent delivered “with deep sadness,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “For the first time in this nation’s history,” the Supreme Court was unable to think of a way to correct a clear-cut wrong. With evident exasperation, she said that good, neutral remedies do exist; the lower courts used them.

In another case with profound consequences for political power, the court did stop the Trump administration from asking people -- at least for now -- a question on the 2020 Census about their citizenship status. The court sent the case back to the Southern District of New York, but on narrow grounds. The ultimate outcome isn’t clear.

If the question is allowed to stand, perhaps millions of Hispanics will avoid participating in the census. The undercount will affect everything from the distribution of congressional seats to the disbursement of federal grants, largely to the detriment of Democratic areas of the country.

How Mitch McConnell must be celebrating. If the Senate Majority Leader hadn’t blocked Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice, from getting onto the Supreme Court, the outcome on gerrymandering surely would have been very different.

This is not a good sign for our teetering democracy. As Kagan said, “The majority goes tragically wrong.”

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June 27

The Orlando Sentinel on Lake County Sherriff’s Office involvement in racist Facebook posts:

One deputy advocated banning Islam. Another falsely identified President Obama as a Muslim. Another mocked a photo of a badly beaten black man. Other Facebook posts by deputies glorified violence, objectified women and demeaned immigrants. At least two posts found humor in mowing down protesters with a vehicle, which is precisely what happened two years ago in Charlottesville, Va.

Say hello to some of the peacekeepers who wear badges in Lake County. People who have the power to deprive others of liberty and life.

Through memes and photos, this group of about two dozen current and former deputies displayed sentiments ranging from hatred to disregard for Muslims, African-Americans, Democrats and anyone whom they judge as insufficiently patriotic.

Their vulgar, violent sentiments were exposed by the Plain View Project, founded by a Philadelphia lawyer who saw a post on Facebook by an officer who joked about someone trying to run from a police dog who “likes fast food.”

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office was one of eight law enforcement agencies across the country examined by project founder Emily Baker-White.

Baker-White said Lake County was chosen in part because the project was looking for geographic diversity, but also because Lake County was in the news in 2017 with a popular and controversial video featuring Sheriff Peyton Grinnell. Flanked by four silent, masked deputies, Grinnell ominously warns drug dealers, “We are coming for you. Run.”

The Facebook posts documented by the Plain View Project have a particularly sickening resonance in Lake, which is still haunted by the racist legacy of longtime Sheriff Willis McCall.

But nearly 50 years after McCall left office, Lake deputies are posting images of Confederate battle flags and throwing around racially charged words like “thugs,” with one deputy applying the term to John Lewis, a civil rights leader and current congressman from Georgia.

Beyond the outright bigotry, the posts show a shocking preoccupation and fascination with violence among a group of people who are supposed to protect the public from violence.

Posts reveled in the debilitating effects a Taser has on people and displayed a fondness for the “Punisher skull,” a symbol associated with a Marvel comic character who becomes an ultra-violent vigilante. How did a character who operates outside the law become such a hero figure to those who swear to uphold the law?

A spokesman for the sheriff’s office, Lt. John Herrell, noted that some of the posts originated with people who are no longer with the force, though 16 current employees are under investigation. Three of them are serving as patrol deputies, hardly a comforting thought if you’re black or Muslim in Lake County.

Philadelphia, another subject of Plain View’s scrutiny, has removed more than 70 officers from patrol duty while the police department investigates. The police chief warned that some may lose their jobs. Prosecutors in St. Louis said they wouldn’t pursue cases brought by 22 officers whose posts were examined by Plain View.

The Lake County posts surely don’t represent the collective sentiments of its deputies, or their law enforcement brothers and sisters in other agencies.

On Friday, for example, the Central Florida Urban League will honor the heroism of law enforcement officers at an event named for slain Orlando Master Sgt. Debra Clayton, who was an example of the best in law enforcement.

These are the men and women who serve their communities with bravery and sacrifice, treating citizens with respect, dignity and restraint regardless of color, religion or any other characteristic.

But as the Plain View Project demonstrates, not everyone wearing a badge possesses those qualities. They harbor dark and violent thoughts, and lack the self-control to even keep it to themselves.

The Plain View revelations, and the fallout, have raised First Amendment issues, and that’s an important discussion to have. Private-sector workplaces generally have more latitude than the public sector in setting rules that limit speech.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office policy prohibits posting online “content which is unethical, slanderous, derogatory or is likely to adversely affect the discipline, good order, or reputation of the agency, or that tends to compromise the integrity of the member.” But those prohibitions are contingent on the person identifying themselves as an employee of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.

All the more reason why it’s important for law enforcement agencies to understand as fully as possible someone’s true character before they’re allowed to join the force.

That means having thorough policies and hiring practices — including social media scrutiny — to ferret out applicants who view portions of the population as subhuman. Hiring managers can then politely suggest those applicants find a different line of work.

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