Florida Ballot Gets Smaller as Judges Kick Out Amendments

Tallahassee, FL – Out of the nine Amendments slated for the November ballot, seven of them are facing legal challenges. As Lynn Hatter reports, most of the challenged amendments were written by the Florida Legislature. Others include a controversial citizen's initiative now facing an ethics complaint.

Only six amendments remain on the November ballot after Leon County Circuit Judge James Shelfer threw out Amendment Nine.

"I think the three phrases that the plaintiff has pointed out in the ballot summary are manifestly misleading."

The ballot summary says the proposal would "ensure access to health care services without waiting lists, protect the doctor-patient relationship, and guard against mandates that don't work."

"There is nothing in the amendment itself that references those matters."

The proposal would have allowed the state to essentially ignore the federal healthcare bill. Shelfer's ruling means the Republican-led Legislature has had half of its ballot proposals kicked out by the courts. That doesn't sit well with Republican Representative Scott Plakon of Longwood, who says judges like Shelfer are legislating from the bench.

"I compared it yesterday to a shooting gallery on the legislative-enacted amendments. As fast as we pass them, the courts are finding various nuances and technical reasons to thwart the will of the people as expressed through the 160 of us."

But not everyone sees the issue the same way. Dexter Douglass, an advisor to former Governor Lawton Chiles, has served on two Florida Constitution Revision Commissions. He says the fact that the Legislature keeps losing in the courts says more about that body than it does about the judges deciding the cases.

"That's what happens when you try to make a political document out of the Constitution. You usually mess up, which is what they did. They set out to make them look like there's something that's good and disguise them with the summaries, and then the courts step in and say, Wait a minute. What you said in the summary is not what it says.' And then they throw them out."

Two more amendments, numbers five and six, were crafted through citizen's initiatives and are tangled in legal battles. The proposals, called Fair Districts, would make voting districts uniform, compact and non-discriminatory, eliminating gerrymandering. Lawmakers wrote an amendment trying to void out Fair Districts, but it was tossed from the ballot. Now, the other two proposals face challenges from the NAACP and Congresswoman Corrine Brown. They claim the measure would overturn federal court-approved district lines that ensure minority representation. Douglass says when it comes to redistricting, it's about turf and power.

"What it boils down to is these amendments basically represent, for the most part, the conflict between the Legislature and the people. And if the people are convinced by the money interests that they should protect the Legislature, then they will defeat the redistricting one, the ones that the Legislature has gone out of their way to defeat. If they want to preserve the power of the people, which is supposed to be the sovereign power of the state, then they will vote for those."

This year's ballot list is an extension of political battles. Take the class size amendment, for example. It was a citizen's initiative in 2002, born out of frustration with too many students in Florida's public school classrooms. Since then, lawmakers have tried to water it down, and this year, the Legislature is trying to amend the amendment. The Florida Education Association, the teacher's union, is looking to get that kicked out. Then, there's Hometown Democracy, Amendment 4, which is facing an ethics complaint from the Florida Chamber. The Chamber's Edie Ousley notes several instances where the campaign failed to report who was supporting it financially.

"Being wrong as Hometown Democracy is with their financial filings should not be a badge of honor that they should wear proudly. Floridians as voters should be aware that an organization that wants to change the Constitution can't even follow Florida law."

Hometown Democracy is a citizen's initiative that, if passed, would allow voters to decide on city and county land-use plans, something that the Florida Chamber says would hamper business and development.

Out of a total of nine constitutional proposals, three have been tossed and four more still face legal challenges. The only two that have not been contested are Amendments One and Two. They deal with a repeal of public campaign financing and giving deployed military personnel a property tax break. Both of those amendments were placed on the ballot by Florida lawmakers.