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Court Rulings Send Legislature Back To The Drawing Board

Florida’s 2013 lawmaking session is slowly fading into the mists of history.  But although lawmakers may have finished their work, some of what they did or didn’t do could prompt much more work on the part of the state’s courts.  It’s a bit like a game of legal ping pong.

Florida used to have a law that fined people whose car radios could be heard more than 25 feet away. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of a man who challenged that law. The verdict? Turn it up.

“We’ve all been there. You pull up to the red light and the windows are rattling. There’s just a smidge of an over preponderance of base coming from a neighboring car. And you scan, who’s doing it. What car could possibly be rocking base that hard?" said Senator Aaron Bean in debate over a bill that would have replaced the loud music law the court kicked out with a new one. 

Florida International Law Professor Howard Wasserman says that's usually how the process goes. He describes it as a back-and-forth “conversation” of sorts between the courts and the legislature over what can remain a law, and what treads too heavily on a person’s rights:

“I think it’s a good illustration of what’s not a unique process. This is something that happens all the time.” 

Another law the courts rejected allowed Florida colleges and universities to charge U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants out of state tuition. This past legislative session, state lawmakers considered a bill that would have codified that ruling into law. Tania Galooni with the Southern Poverty Law Center says the bill was unnecessary.

“U.S. Citizens have a right to in-state tuition even if their parents are undocumented. To deny them that would violate the Constitution.”    

But Galooni says the bill wasn’t exactly a throwaway piece of legislation. She says it could have come in handy if it had outlined steps for complying with the court’s ruling.

“It could have spelled things out, and that’s something that would have been helpful, it could be either by statute or legislation to clarify the impact of the judge’s ruling and sort of, how to implement it," she said.

Agencies that deal with tuition, like the State Board of Education and the Board of Governors, still have to have rules in place for colleges and universities to follow, regardless of what the courts and lawmakers say.

And then there was a court ruling left a big hole in Florida laws that deal with sentencing juveniles for crimes.

“Because who they are at 15 is not who they are when they are 30,40, 50. So it is unconstitutional based on the science of brain development, to put them in prison for the rest of their life," said David Utter with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it’s unconstitutional to give juveniles life terms, or their equivalents, for crimes other than murder. That caused Florida lawmakers to reconsider the state’s sentencing laws. One bill would have given juveniles 50 years with the option of parole. Had it passed, the bill would have probably been challenged, and when it comes to what kind of law amounts to an “equivalent” of a life sentence, the Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t provide any answers:

Sound- “It’s going to be a question of where is the line? Is 50 years... is that functionally life? What about 25 so he’ll get out when he’s 42? Maybe not.  Somewhere between 42 and 65 may be the line we’re shooting for. But these are all the things we’re trying to work out, but they can’t get worked out unless the legislature acts first.”    

The court ruling has created a bit of a ping-pong effect. Juveniles who in the past were sentenced to life are getting new sentencing hearings. And since the legislature and courts still haven’t decided on a new law, the cycle will start all over again.