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Florida Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Death Penalty Law

The seven-member Florida Supreme  Court poses for a photo in the courtroom.
Florida Supreme Court
Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court Tuesday heard oral arguments on a law intended to speed up the capital punishment process. When Florida’s Timely Justice Act was enacted last year, critics warned it would deprive inmates of their right to appeal.

Martin McClain is the lawyer for a handful of death row inmates. He argues the Timely Justice Act makes capital cases more confusing.

“I need to know what’s going on. I need notice and an opportunity to be heard, and we’ve got a statute that’s now set up to change things in a way that everybody disagrees as to what it does,” he told justices Tuesday.

He takes issue with the law’s requirement for the Supreme Court to periodically provide the governor with a list of “warrant ready” inmates. McClain said that requirement is unconstitutional because it infringes on the court’s rulemaking power. But several of the court’s seven justices, including Barbara Pariente, didn’t seem to agree.

“We may not agree this is the best policy to accomplish what they’re wanting to accomplish, but where does it infringe on this court’s authority?” she asked.

Justice Charles Canady added that the law as whole does not appear to interfere with inmates’ right to a fair trial. 

“I don’t see how anything in this law would infringe on our ability to issue whatever stay is necessary to ensure that the claims are adequately considered and due process is observed,” he said.

The state’s lawyer, Carol Dittmar, asserted the Timely Justice Act does not have any of the negative effects the inmates’ lawyer feared it would, including the almost immediate signing of a large number of death warrants. She noted that although a list of more than 130 inmates was delivered to Gov. Scott in October, he’s signed just five warrants since then.

“Maybe if something had happened that was having some adverse impact on the function of government, then that would give this court cause to look at the statute,” she told the justices.

The justices also questioned both lawyers about other ways the expansive law might interfere with judicial rulemaking. No deadline is set for their ruling.