Legislative Office The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida maintains a permanent legislative office at the state capital in Tallahassee. During the sixty-day Regular Session, which convened on March 6, the ACLU tracked over 100 bills and actively lobbied, often with coalition partners, approximately 25 bills.
Legislative Committee, Regional Offices & Local Chapters The legislative staff counsel preliminarily determined which bills would be tracked during the Regular Session. The ACLU of Florida legislative committee, composed of board members representing the state's 18 chapters, worked with the legislative staff counsel and the executive director to identify bills with civil liberties implications and to prioritize legislation that would be the subject of the ACLU lobbying effort.
Our legislative program benefited tremendously this session from the expansion of the ACLU of Florida regional offices (located in Tampa, Pensacola, Melbourne, Orlando and soon to be in Jacksonville) and the hiring of new project directors for specialized areas of concern (voting rights, racial justice, church/state, reproductive freedom, and lesbian & gay rights). There was also significant grassroots participation at the chapter level under the direction of our field coordinator based in Miami.
The legislative office, as we do each session, benefited from the assistance of interns from the Florida State University College of Law who performed assigned research and legal writing assignments to fulfill their pro bono requirement at the law school. This session ACLU also had the expertise of Glenn Lang, a former Senate staffer at the Florida Legislature, who volunteered not only to draft some excellent talking points and amendments to bills, but also to testify on several key measures for the ACLU.
Major Victory on Voting Technology By large margins, both houses of the Florida Legislature passed legislation requiring all Florida counties to have paper ballot voting technology in place before the 2008 primary elections.
ACLU applauded the Florida Legislature for acting on Governor Charlie Crist's commitment to change the state's flawed voting system . This was ACLU's number one priority for 2007. Nonetheless, there is more work to be done.
In Florida Legislature 2008, the battle for fair elections in our state will focus on the 15 former DRE (touch-screen voting) counties, which must act independently to ensure that disabled and language-minority voters will not be second-class citizens. The legislation enacted this session did not require counties to provide paper ballot systems suitable for disabled voters.
Unfortunately, the legislation also contained a series of bad provisions that stifle voter registration and petition initiative drives by grassroots organizations. ACLU, along with its coalition partners, will lobby in 2008 to remove these anti-democratic provisions from an otherwise progressive law.
Ballot Initiatives Governor Charlie Crist did veto a bill, supported by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and opposed by a coalition of public interest organizations that would have shortened deadlines for citizens seeking to amend the state constitution. The bill would have imposed a 30-day deadline for the submission of voters' signatures on initiative petitions to county election supervisors for verification.
Restoration of Ex-Offender Voting Rights Although efforts to amend the state constitution to restore automatically civil rights to all ex-offenders once they have completed all non-monetary terms of their sentence and supervision failed to gain significant support in the Legislature, Governor Crist and the Florida Cabinet (sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency) did address civil rights restoration for ex-offenders through clemency rule reform.
Progress was made, but again more needs to be done. Thousands will receive automatic restoration, but the new procedures continue to disenfranchise those most in need by denying restoration of civil rights if they cannot afford to pay restitution. This number may be as high as 60 percent of all felons.
The ACLU agrees that restitution should be paid, but without restoration of civil rights (and the eligibility for state occupational licenses), it will be difficult for individuals to fulfill this obligation. Without the ability to work, ex-offenders are unable to pay restitution and become productive citizens.
There was no proposed legislation this session, as in years past, which would have affected the Florida Supreme Court's oversight and regulation of the legal profession.
Prison Expansion Lawmakers provided for construction of more than 8,000 new prison beds and another $35 million for 2,300 beds in privately operated prisons. Most of the new construction is required by the 'Anti-Murder Act', which is designed to return probation violators to custody instead of continuing their release. ACLU did not take a position on the bill. We did, however, express our view that rather than building new prisons there should be a comprehensive revision of the state and federal drug policies which are ineffectual, counterproductive and are the major cause of prison overcrowding.
No Compensation for Alan Crotzer The Florida Senate decided not to compensate Alan Crotzer, the 46-year-old St. Petersburg man who spent 24 years in prison for rape before DNA testing exonerated him.
The House attached the $1.25-million Crotzer compensation to a must-pass bill that pays $4.8-million to the family of Martin Lee Anderson, for the boy's death in a state boot camp. But when the bill reached the Senate floor, the Crotzer provision was removed. ACLU supported the claims bill.
Sex Offenders Convicted sex offenders and predators cannot be granted bail in any type of court case unless a judge holds a special hearing to determine whether they are a danger to their community.
The Supreme Court amended the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure to incorporate the new rule in the Jessica Lunsford Act. The amendment is under the umbrella of the 'Anti-Murder Act''. The bill approved by the Legislature also requires a hearing for people on probation for other violent offenses even if the new charge is a nonviolent crime, like driving with a suspended license.
Another law addressed to convicted sex offenders and predators requires that they obtain new driver licenses or state identification cards which designate them as a sex offender or predator.
An ACLU concern about these well-intended laws is that they give a false sense of security. Most sex crimes are not committed by strangers, but rather by family members or persons regularly in the home such as boyfriends or relatives. Vigilance, not vengeance, is the key to preventing these horrific crimes. Likewise, Florida, unlike many states, fails to distinguish adequately between predators and offenders. Harsh treatment of predators may be justified, but those who commit minor sex offenses, particularly at a young age, should be treated differently by the criminal justice system.
NRA vs. Business Community Legislators rejected a bill intended to allow gun owners to have weapons locked in their cars at work. Many employers forbid employees from bringing guns onto company property. It was a battle between gun-rights advocates and the business community. The ACLU, despite being requested by both sides to support their position, sat this one out.
Death Penalty A bill to end an experiment using only private attorneys to handle capital post-conviction appeals in North Florida and to reinstate the northern office of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel (CCRC) died on the House calendar.
Lethal Injection Although the Legislature took no action on a bill to require a new lethal injection protocol, a commission appointed by former Governor Jeb Bush filed its report nearly six months after the botched execution of Angel Diaz which led to a temporary moratorium in executions.
Unfortunately, there is no change to the chemical cocktail. This even after the Governor's Commission recommended considering a change and a University of Miami Medical School report raised more disturbing questions about the chemicals currently used. Like so many other states, Florida simply validates its lethal injection chemicals and procedures based on what other states are doing.
The 'new, improved procedure' attempts to create "a buffer for qualified health care professionals to participate only to the extent that their consultation is needed to resolve venous or other technical issues without actually participating in the execution itself." The procedures were written "validating the limited involvement of the medical community to purely medical issues that are an aside to the actual process."
The changes made by the Department of Corrections were, in the opinion of the ACLU, merely window-dressing. After the new procedures were put in place, Governor Crist resumed the signing of death warrants. However, the pending execution was stayed pending court review of the new procedures.
The ACLU urges a new moratorium on executions and a comprehensive review of the death penalty in our state in accordance with the recommendations and findings of the recent report by the American Bar Association.
No major church/state bills were enacted this session.
The bill (filed annually for the past decade) to permit voluntary prayer in the public schools died in committee.
Efforts to expand public-funded stem cell research failed after opposition from the Religious Right.
Legislation was introduced that would have revived Jeb Bush's Opportunity Scholarship Program (school vouchers) that was ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court. The measure would have allowed students who previously qualified for school vouchers (OPS) to be eligible for Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarships (CITC) and would have expanded the CITC program to include foster children and eligible students in the Department of Juvenile Justice system. Both measures died on calendar, at least in part, due to concerns that passage could encourage litigation against CITC and the McKay Scholarship program which, to date, have not been challenged in the courts.
A bill that would exempt a child care program affiliated with a religious congregation or a religious school from regulation by the Department of Children & Family Services as a religious-exempt child care program died in committee. Although there were no new church/state laws enacted, the Florida Legislature did include in the general appropriations act substantial funding for abstinence-only sex education and other faith-based programs. These are being monitored by the ACLU legal department.
Lesbian & Gay Rights
Florida is the only state in the nation with an absolute ban on adoption by gays and lesbians. A bill that would have repealed the ban died in committee. Repeal of this discriminatory measure is an ACLU priority.
ACLU was part of a coalition that worked to pass a statewide safe schools law that bans harassment of students and provides mandatory training for every Florida teacher on how to identify and stop harassment when it occurs. The bill died in committee.
A bill to include sexual orientation and familial status as grounds for discrimination in public lodging establishments and public food service establishments died in committee.
The Prevention First Act This is the second year that the Prevention First Act was introduced in the Florida Legislature. It called on the Department of Health to make information on family planning services more accessible, required that emergency contraception be made available to all rape and incest survivors in emergency rooms, and required Florida schools to teach a comprehensive sex education curriculum. The bill passed easily out of one Senate committee with bipartisan support -- but without the section on sex education. Unfortunately, no action on the bill was taken in the House. The Prevention First Act is supported by ACLU at both the state and Congressional levels, and will again be an affiliate priority in 2008.
The Parents Right to Know Act This legislation would have required schools that teach abstinence-only sex education or receive abstinence-only funding to inform parents what information their children are not receiving in the classroom, such as medically-accurate information about contraception and sexually transmitted infections.
The bill died in committee. Addressing the failed abstinence-only sex education program is an ACLU priority.
Restrictions on Reproductive Health Care What began as a bad bill that would have made it more difficult for minors to secure an abortion if they did not wish to notify their parents became an assault on both adult and young women's access to reproductive health care. The original bill tried to increase the obstacles young women would face if seeking a judicial bypass of the parental notification law. The Florida House of Representatives added several dangerous amendments to the bill that would also have required all women (including adults) to wait 24 hours before receiving an abortion as well as receive and be offered to view an ultrasound so that they could consider the full effects of their decision. This was a clear attempt to intimidate women who have already made a very difficult and personal medical decision and interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
The ACLU and our coalition partners opposed the bill which died in committee.
Child Abuse Reporting This bill would have criminalized sex and scared young women out of seeking health care. It would have required health care practitioners who provide abortions, personnel of abortion clinics and others to report pregnancies of girls less than 16 years of age to law enforcement agencies. It also would have required health care practitioners who perform abortions on girls less than 16 years of age to collect and preserve specified DNA samples from the teen and fetus, as well as forward them to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The ACLU and our coalition partners opposed the bill which was defeated in committee in the Florida Senate.
Unborn Victims of Violence Act This legislation was another measure by anti-choice members to grant legal personhood to a fetus and was designed further to undermine Roe vs. Wade. Pursuant to the proposed law, if a woman is injured or killed by another and the resulting act leads to the death of her fetus, then the perpetrator of the crime could be charged with homicide. This would have also changed the words "viable fetus" to "unborn child' in an attempt to establish fetal personhood. The bill, which was opposed by ACLU and its coalition partners, died on calendar.
Two special sessions were called during the summer months. The first attempted to deal with catastrophic property insurance necessitated by the threat of hurricanes. The second resulted in a two-part property tax reform package. ACLU took no position on either issue.
A third special session has been called for the fall to address an expected $1.5 billion shortfall in the state budget. ACLU will monitor the third special session, but likely will take no position on the tax reduction proposals absent an expansion of the call that might include areas of civil liberties concern.
Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission
Florida voters could be asked in 2008 to alter class-size requirements and resurrect private-school vouchers.
An obscure panel with the power to place constitutional amendments directly on the 2008 ballot has been asked to consider these two controversial education items. Former Governor Jeb Bush tried to get Florida lawmakers to act on both, but he was blocked in the Florida Senate by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats.
Now the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which meets every 20 years, may take the matter directly to voters. Members, particularly those appointed by Jeb Bush, are being encouraged to do so.
ACLU opposes the attempt to resurrect the failed attempt to repeal of the class-size amendment and to invalidate the Florida Supreme Court decision in Bush v Holmes which held school vouchers (OPS) unconstitutional.
By most objective standards, this was a successful legislative session for the ACLU. There were several successes and some dangerous bills were defeated. Still there remains much work to do in preparation for Florida Legislature 2008.
Eternal Vigilance is the price of liberty!