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Judge Expects To Rule Quickly Over Prison Health Care Privatization Dispute

****UPDATE: Judge has Ruled. Read Story HERE****

The jobs of about the three-thousand correctional employees’ jobs hang in the balance as a Leon Circuit Judge decides whether the state can privatize its prison health care services. The judge must rule on whether a Legislative Budget panel overstepped its authority by approving the plan, even after several attempts to privatize had been struck down by the courts.

Lawyers for the state say the Legislative Budget Commission has the legal right to give money to the Florida Department of Corrections to contract with companies to privatize health care services in state prisons.

But, lawyers for the unions who represent public employees say a small panel of lawmakers had no authority to make a budgetary decision like that.

The matter has been in the courts before. In July, Leon Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll declared the subject moot because the budget provision the department had used to privatize under had already expired.

That’s why during final arguments at a Thursday hearing, Judge John Cooper questioned the department’s motive to use the Legislative Budget Commission, or the LBC, to continue with the privatization:

“After Judge Carroll’s decision became final, why then did the department go to the LBC,” asked Judge Cooper.

The department received approval to contract with private companies, like Corizon Healthcare. Lawyer for Corizon, William Williams, says the commission did what was already written in Constitutional law.

But, citing the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Judge Cooper says he feels like he’s being asked to divine the true intentions of the Legislature.

“What Justice Scalia says is instead of trying to mind read the Legislature, what courts should do is look at what they say,” said Scalia.

The unions say the full 140-member body of the Legislature as opposed to 14 lawmakers should take up the matter again. But, speaking to Judge Cooper Thursday, lawyer for Corizon Healthcare William Williams says there’s more the judge has to take into account.

“And, if [union lawyer] Mr. [Tom] Brooks is correct that there needs to be this specific authority, all the Legislature has to do early next year is pass a proviso that says budget with Corizon, and you’re home free right," asked Judge Cooper.

“I suppose there’s any number of things that could be done, your Honor," replied Williams.

"But, the problem is, we’re in this budget year now. If this challenge is successful, the agency is going to run into a budget deficit.”

But, Alma Gonzalez, the lawyer for AFSCME, or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, says lawmakers need to know they can’t use a small subset of the Legislature to make significant policy changes.

“The Legislative process is still a Democratic process inside the state of Florida," said Gonzalez.

"And, while the Legislature does have the opportunity to reconsider, it’s not always a guarantee. When they came back for the full privatization in 2012, it was turned away. And, so, that’s part of what Democracy is. It gives us an opportunity to debate those issues, to do it in a transparent way, for the people’s voices to be heard and for a majority to rule.”

Overall, Judge Cooper says he has a lot to look at and wants to get all the facts straight before he makes his ruling.

“Sherlock Holmes, what he did say is the solution in which all the facts fit. So that is what I’m searching for is the solution where all the facts before me fit.”

The outcome of this case stands to affect thousands of employees who are in jeopardy of losing their jobs. Though, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections says the private companies are expected to offer jobs to most of the employees. But, that process has been halted while they await the Judge’s decision.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.