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Capital Report

2011 session helps boost employment-- for lawyers


By Lynn Hatter

Tallahassee, FL – Right now, different advocacy groups are looking at bills passed during the legislative session, and in many cases, hoping the governor vetoes them. But if he doesn't, several of those groups are busy hiring lawyers to take their battles to the state's courtrooms. Lynn Hatter reports among the potential legal challenges is a controversial elections bill and the annual battle about public school class sizes.

The battle over the elections law has been ignited and others are brewing. After Governor Rick Scott signed off on a proposal limiting early voting, and fining third party groups for late registration forms, the chorus for lawsuits grew louder. Executive Director Jessica Lowe Minor of the non-partisan League of Women Voters says the group is considering legal options but wants to follow the process.

"Any law passed in Florida that involves voting must be pre-cleared by the Department of Justice. We'll be carefully following that process to see what the Department of Justice's determination on the bill and at that point we will determine what to do next."

But supporters like Ocala Republican Representative Dennis Baxley maintain the new law is meant to strengthen Florida's election process.

"It does protect and improve citizens voting rights. We are creating more uniformity and clarity in the existing elections code and reporting guidelines -- that will be timely.

In the meantime, the Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and has been hiring lawyers in preparation for suits to come over an executive order to drug test state employees, a bill to drug test welfare recipients, and constitutional amendments restricting abortion and allowing public money to go to religious shools.

"I think we're going to see a lot of surprises still and a lot of litigation sadly as a result of this session. And that's kind of the ironic part. This legislature went up to create jobs, and they certainly did that. It's become a full employment act for attorneys."

And, after a three year battle over how small classes in Florida's public schools should be, the legislature and the Florida Education Association could be heading back to court again. The union lost big battles in the legislature this year. It was unable to stop the expansion of the McKay scholarship program for students with disabilities. The first bill the governor signed into law ties half a teacher's evaluation to student test scores, and a bill decreasing the number of classes falling under the state's class size amendment is waiting to be signed. Andy Ford is the association's president.

"We're going to regroup and start focusing on the next session that starts in January. And take a look at all the potential legal challenges that are on the horizon. We're looking at a variety of things, anything from class size to Senate Bill 736 and how that impacts our members and how that impacts the instructional process."

The school choice advocacy group the Foundation for Florida's Future supported several of the education bills including the class size proposal and Senate Bill 736 which eliminates long- term contracts for new teachers after July of this year. Spokeswoman Jaryn Emhoff says she isn't a lawyer but knows lawsuits are coming.

"I think it would be incredibly unfortunate because all we're saying and all we're trying to do is provide every student with a quality education. Children aren't cookie cutters, and we don't believe they should be cast into one cookie-cutter type of education."

Meanwhile, Florida is gearing up to defend itself against whatever lawsuits may come. The Attorney General's office represents the state in the courtrooms. Spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis says if it's a constitutional challenge, the attorney general's office or the state attorney's office has to be notified, and they can choose whether to get involved.

"Another way laws are challenged is that someone sues the agency that would be enforcing whatever statute that is, and depending on the agency, we provide council for them, however the agency could decide at that point to either retain or use their internal council, they could retain us as council, or they could retain outside council."

Suing the state is a common practice but this year may be unusual for the sheer number of potential challenges looming. Whatever comes about, Davis says the attorney general's office is ready.

"We're prepared. We're very lucky to have very talented lawyers available on our staff and we look forward to the challenges coming before us."

And so are the people and groups preparing to bring those cases.