Florida Supreme Court Archives - Page 2 of 23 - SaintPetersBlog

House raises eyebrows by arguing prosecutors have no discretion on death penalty

In a friend of the court brief bound to raise state attorneys’ eyebrows throughout Florida, the Florida House is arguing that prosecutors have no discretion with regard to capital punishment, that the state Legislature’s intent was to rest all discretion with juries.

The House filed the brief in the Florida Supreme Court case of Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala versus Gov. Rick Scott. The issues, in that case, are whether prosecutorial discretion gives Ayala the power to refuse all capital punishment prosecutions, as she’s done; and whether the governor has the right to strip capital cases away from her, as he’s consequently done.

The brief, filed late Wednesday, argues that a state attorney is not the one to decide on death penalties. It contends the state attorney’s role is more clerical, to review facts of a case to determine if aggravating circumstances exist that could merit a death penalty, and then leave the decision of death or life in prison entirely up to the jury.

The House of Representatives is one of the numerous bodies filing amicus curiae briefs in the case, indicating the enormous ramifications the legal battle holds for prosecutors, the governor, and the Florida Legislature. Among others expected is a dissenting brief from several Democratic members of the House and Florida Senate.

The official House brief declares, “the policy of this State, reflected in legislative enactments, reserves to the jury — speaking for the community and reflecting that community’s values — the threshold decision whether death should be an authorized punishment for a capital murder conviction. A state attorney, by contrast, has no authority to abrogate the Legislature’s death penalty policy within her circuit.”

Ayala’s lead attorney, Roy L. Austin Jr., called the House argument “stunning.”

“This is a stunning position that calls for an unconstitutional interpretation of the Florida statutes, not to mention contradicting the positions and pleadings from the governor, the attorney general, the FPAA and every state attorney in Florida,” Austin said in a written statement to Orlando-Rising.com.

On March 16, Ayala, the newly-elected state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties, announced that she had reviewed Florida’s laws, court decisions, and the opinions of various parties to conclude that Florida’s death sentence law was not just for anyone, so she would not use it. Scott responded by stripping 23 cases from her and reassigning them to State Attorney Brad King of Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit.

Ayala sued, both in the state Supreme Court and in U.S. District Court, asserting her rights under the doctrine of prosecutorial discretion, and challenging Scott’s authority to reassign cases if she had not violated any laws.

At issue in most of the filings so far is whether prosecutorial discretion could be exercised before or after Ayala or any other prosecutor reviewed all the facts of the case and weighed aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

But the House argued that the prosecutor does not have discretion, even after he or she reviews the facts of a case. That could fly in the face of the common practice among prosecutors, who often weigh a number of factors, from victims’ families desires to potential plea bargains, in deciding whether to pursue death penalty prosecutions.

In the brief, a section title lays it out bluntly: “The Legislature’s capital sentencing scheme leaves no discretion to the state attorney to assess whether death should be an authorized punishment in a capital murder case.”

In another argument that may make state attorneys uncomfortable, the House also challenged the independence of state attorneys.

Citing a 1939 Florida Supreme Court Decision and several statutes, the brief argues that a “state attorney in this State is not merely a prosecuting officer in the Circuit in which he is; he is also an officer of the State in the general matter of the enforcement of the criminal law. … It is the State, and not the County, that pays his salary and official expense. And when a state officer like the petitioner refuses or is unable to follow the State’s policies as set by the Legislature, the Legislature fairly can expect that either the Governor, or a chief circuit judge, will find someone who will.”

Appropriations chiefs declare budget talks ‘closed’ — but with an asterisk

House and Senate budget negotiators traded final offers Thursday and pronounced their work done, bar some last-minute tidying up.

“The budget is closed,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Lavala said.

“We’ve got a couple of question marks, but this is not an opportunity to entertain any new issues. We’re going to resolve one or two issues, and then we’re going to come back together and get those solved,” he said.

“The cupboard is bare.”

Left to do is reconcile conforming bills on topics including PreK-12 and higher education and state worker pay raises.

“They are currently in the final stages of drafting. I think they’ll probably be printed later on this evening. Public hearing Friday, Monday, as soon as we possibly can. We want to give the public ample opportunity to review them. We’re not going to drop them 30 minutes before the meeting,” House budget chief Carlos Trujillo said.

The conferees reduced a proposed $300 million cut to hospital Medicaid reimbursement rates by $50 —which, accounting for the federal match — will leave the hospitals $600 million poorer.

But they still are figuring out how to apply the cut, Trujillo said.

The health and human services budget was the last big roadblock to a compromise $83 billion budget. The breakthrough didn’t come in time to meet the Legislature’s deadline for adjournment Friday, so the House and Senate agreed to extend the session into Friday.

Negotiators need to clear up “one or two big issues that may have been put in the wrong place on the spreadsheet,” Latvala said.

“It’s a lot of money. We just want to be right about what we do.”

Senate negotiators accepted House proviso language requiring an audit of the Tampa International Airport expansion. The chamber had rejected a Sen. Tom Lee amendment to audit the project on April 17.

Additional proviso language requires the Florida Supreme Court to issue a report each year to the governor, speaker of the House, and president of the Senate on the number of cases that remain on its docket for more than 180 days.

The item was a high priority for House leaders and passed both chambers — although the Senate tacked on an amendment expanding the use of juvenile civil citations that the House had yet to accept as of Thursday.

“That’s a House speaker initiative. But, actually, I don’t disagree with that,” Latvala said.

Update: The conferees reconvened Thursday evening to resolve their remaining technical differences, and to add nearly $2.5 million in last minute projects, including a rodeo facility in Arcadia, canal improvements in Florida City, and the Urban League.

“The budget is closed,” Latvala said. “It should be on the desk tomorrow morning. No more. No more. The budget is closed.”

Martin Dyckman: Florida needs answers on death penalty discretion

The courtroom at the Florida Supreme Court seats 164, which may not be enough for all the attorneys, organizations and individuals who have intervened in the unprecedented case of Aramis Ayala v. Rick Scott.

Six groups have weighed in as friends of the court on behalf of Ayala, the state attorney for Orange and Seminole counties who is fighting to regain the 23 murder cases that the governor assigned to another prosecutor after she said she would not seek the death penalty in any of them

Among her supporters is a group of 45 prominent lawyers and judges, most well-known nationally. Among them are four former Florida Supreme Court justices, two former presidents of the American Bar Association, nine current and former district attorneys in other states, and four former U.S. Justice Department officials including Jamie Gorelick, who was Attorney General Janet Reno‘s deputy.

Three “friends of the court” support Scott, among them the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which sided with the man who controls their budgets rather with the colleague who is fighting for their independence as well as hers.

One group of families of murder victims is backing Ayala. Another is for Scott.

Despite the extraordinary interest, this case is not going to decide whether the death penalty is as error-prone, financially wasteful and as altogether counter-productive as Ayala correctly insists.

Florida needs answers to those questions, but capital punishment is one of those issues where precious few politicians care to be confused by facts. As the steam was building in Ayala v. Scott, the House of Representatives defeated a budget amendment calling for an objective study of the costs and consequences of the death penalty.

For the court, however, the questions are simply these: Did Ayala abuse her discretion in deciding as she did? Did Scott abuse his in stripping her of those 23 cases?

It’s one of the most significant arguments the court will ever hear. Florida prosecutors make perhaps tens of thousands of judgment calls every year: What crime to charge? What crime not to charge? What plea to accept? They have even more power than the judges in deciding who goes to prison and for how long.

Should a governor be able to supersede one of those decisions simply because he doesn’t agree with it? Carried to an extreme, that makes him a dictator.

As the brief of the 45 lawyers and judges argues, “The real issue—and the one properly before this Court—is the independence of state attorneys to exercise their discretion without interference from other political branches of government. Indeed, this case puts squarely at issue the fundamental independence of prosecutors and the judicial branch …

“The Florida Constitution does not allow the governor of the state to support the exercise of prosecutorial discretion only when he finds it agreeable to and to intervene when he feels otherwise.” the brief says.

This is the gist of Ayala’s case, although she contends that the governor’s power to reassign state attorneys is a lot less limited than Scott’s predecessors have taken it to be. They sent in substitutes not only when some prosecutor reported a conflict of interest, such as a relative or former client facing charges, but also in cases of official misconduct where they believed the resident prosecutor was compromised by friendship or indifference. But I can recall no case like Ayala’s, in which the issue is not whether to prosecute for a crime but only whether to ask for a specific penalty.

Scott contends that Ayala made an “across the board determination not to undertake a case-specific analysis.” In effect, his lawyers say, she decided not to exercise her prosecutorial discretion.

His position appears somewhat inconsistent with what the governor’s office wrote last year to a citizen who had complained about another state attorney.

State attorneys are independently elected, charged with “certain discretionary duties,” and answerable only to their voters, the letter said.

All this begs the question of whether Florida will be harmed in any way if Ayala gets the cases back and the defendants she convicts go to prison for life instead of to death row.

The answer is no. Florida would be better off.

The killers would be behind bars for life. Anyone who thinks that’s getting away with murder should consult the ghost of Aaron Hernandez. Florida would spend a lot less money putting them in prison and keeping them there. There would be no multiple rounds of appeals, many of them to federal courts beyond the state’s control. The families of victims wouldn’t have to wait 20 or 30 years or longer for closure.

In any event, the voters of Orange and Seminole counties will have the opportunity to pass judgment on Ayala three years from now. Why isn’t Scott willing to wait for that? Is it because that would be no help to his U.S. Senate campaign next year?

It would be useful — and overdue — to have a comprehensive study from the Legislature’s highly capable and nonpartisan office of Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Among other things, the people deserve to know how much extra money they are spending on death cases. OPPAGA should also be tasked to explain in detail what happens to the enormous majority of killers who don’t end up on death row. In fiscal 2015, for example, Florida courts sent 942 people to prison for homicides ranging from manslaughter to first-degree murder, but only eight to death row.

A safe guess would be that prosecutorial discretion accounted for virtually all of that. Isn’t it time to know?

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Supreme Court denies Aramis Ayala’s first writ to win back cases Rick Scott reassigned

The Florida Supreme Court denied the first attempt by Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala to win back first-degree murder cases that Gov. Rick Scott reassigned to another state attorney.

In denying Ayala’s emergency, non-routine petition to overturn Scott’s executive orders reassigning the cases to Ocala’s State Attorney Brad King, the Supreme Court concluded that the matter “is more properly addressed” through her other legal challenge, a writ of quo warrento, which she later filed.

That leaves the matter where most expected it to be left, in her second challenge of Scott’s action, a case that has drawn broad support for both Ayala and Scott from a variety of outside groups who expect the ruling to be pivotal in determining the extent of powers in Florida of both the state attorney and the governor.

At issue are Ayala’s refusal to pursue death penalty prosecutions in her 9th Judicial Circuit, and Scott’s determination that she is derelict in her duties, giving him the responsibility to reassign potential death penalty cases to someone else, in this case to King in Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit.

In a ruling issued late Tuesday, the Supreme Court denied the first petition from Ayala, stating, “The Petition asks this Court to answer the same question of law, on a temporary basis, that the Court is asked to address in the separately filed Petition for Writ of Quo Warranto. That question is more properly addressed after both parties have been heard in the Quo Warranto action and will not be answered on a “temporary” basis.”

Senate budges little in initial gambling negotiation

Saying he wanted to “start taking small steps,” state Sen. Bill Galvano on Monday tendered the first offer in the Legislature’s negotiation on a gambling bill this year.

The initial tender, though it largely maintains what’s in the Senate’s bill, also would classify contentious “pre-reveal” games as slot machines, and would limit two new slots facilities to either Broward or Miami-Dade counties.

A circuit court ruling last month against the state said entertainment devices that look and play like slot machines, called “pre-reveal” games, were “not an illegal slot machine or gambling device.” House leaders in particular feared that meant they would wind up in bars, restaurants, and even in family fun centers.

The Senate offer also would give the state more time, up to two years, to address any future violation of blackjack exclusivity brought by the Seminole Tribe of Florida with a legislative fix. That also was addressed to court rulings that create such “violations.”

The House and Senate are far apart on their respective gambling bills this session, with the House holding the line on gambling expansion, and the Senate pushing for new games.

A deal is pending to grant continued blackjack exclusivity to the tribe in return for $3 billion over seven years, though that money isn’t part of ongoing budget talks between the House and Senate. A request for comment is pending with the Tribe’s spokesman.

Galvano’s House counterpart, state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, said he appreciated the offer “to get the conversation going,” specifically mentioning the 2-year provision in the context of court decisions on gambling.

“There are still plenty of threats out there and we’re constantly playing a game of catch-up,” he said. Diaz added that he expects to respond some time later this week: “There is some low-hanging fruit here and some more complicated issues to work through.” The 2017 Legislative Session is scheduled to meet May 5.

Galvano mentioned last Thursday’s Supreme Court decision that cleared the “Voter Control of Gambling” amendment for the 2018 ballot.

He surmised from Justices Ricky Polston‘s and R. Fred Lewis‘ dissent in that case that the court is ready to rule in favor of expanding slot machines to counties that approved them in local referendums.

“One can almost glean from the dissent that it’s a fait accompli just pending in the court,” Galvano said. “Either we do it or the courts are going to do it.”

“When I look at the dissenting opinion, it almost references (new slots in referendum counties) as if they’re existing,” Galvano later told reporters. “All of these things play into the big picture.”

He also has concerns that the amendment, if adopted, could retroactively quash new slots approved for Hialeah. When asked whether he were reading between the lines, he added, “That’s a good way of putting it.”

Gambling deal may come down to slots question

Seeing it as the “lesser of various evils” to pass a gambling bill this year, the House may give in to the Senate’s position to legislatively approve new slot machines in counties that passed referendums allowing them, according to those familiar with the negotiations.

As of early Monday, the Conference Committee on Gaming was set to meet later in the day at 1:30 p.m., though an official notice had not yet gone out.

The House and Senate are far apart on their respective gambling bills this session, with the House holding the line on gambling expansion, and the Senate pushing for new games. Both sides also want to see some new agreement with the Seminole Tribe on continued exclusivity to offer blackjack in exchange for $3 billion over seven years.

What’s becoming clearer as the 2017 Legislative Session’s May 5th end looms is House leadership’s distress at recent court decisions, the practical effect of which is opening up more gambling opportunities without legislative say.

Sources had said conference chair and state Sen. Bill Galvano had gotten “spooked” by a Supreme Court decision last Thursday that cleared for the 2018 ballot a “Voter Control of Gambling” amendment, giving voters the power to OK or veto future casino gambling in the state.

Vice-chair and state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz confirmed that Galvano, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, wanted to make sure the amendment “wouldn’t affect the Senate’s offer.”

But one representative of gambling interests throughout the state, who asked not to be named, said the House “was very careful in not taking the referendum counties issue off the table.”

A second person said that “(a)ll things considered, that was way down on the list of things that gave them heartburn.”

More concerning was a 1st District Court of Appeal opinion earlier this month against the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulated gambling, ordering the reinstatement of a South Florida casino’s application for a new “summer jai alai” permit.

Taken to one logical extension, the ruling could lead to “mini-casinos” in hotels, they say. Miami-Dade lawmakers in particular have been concerned about Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel pursuing slot machines in the last few years. At a minimum, such permits allow a pari-mutuel facility to open a cardroom and offer simulcast betting.

Another circuit court ruling last month against the department said entertainment devices that look and play like slot machines, called “pre-reveal” games, were “not an illegal slot machine or gambling device.” Judge John Cooper reasoned that was because players “press a ‘preview’ button before a play button can be activated.”

That ruling’s applicability was, at first, unclear: Because Cooper is a circuit judge, some state officials said his order only applied in north Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit of Franklin, Gadsden, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla counties.

Later, attorneys in the industry argued Cooper’s decision applied all over Florida, because it was against the department that regulates gambling statewide. That had House leaders “freaked out” that pre-reveal games would start appearing in bars, restaurants, and even in family fun centers.

Meantime, Galvano and others in the Senate fixated on the dissent in the gambling amendment case, and its implication on what’s known as the “Gretna case.”

Justices Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis said the amendment’s “ballot title and summary do not clearly inform the public that the proposed amendment may substantially affect slot machines approved by county-wide (referendums).”

With Lewis signing on to the dissent, “that made us think there was another vote in favor of Gretna that we didn’t think was there,” said yet another person in the gambling industry.

The court has not yet ruled in a case, pending since oral argument was given last June, on Gretna Racing. That’s the Gadsden County track seeking to add slot machines; pari-mutuel interests have said Gretna and other facilities in counties where voters approved slots should be allowed to offer them.

If the court rules in favor, that could result in the single biggest gambling expansion in the state.

“I think the House is fed up with it,” said the first industry consultant, referring to gambling-related court decisions. “The only way they can get a handle on (gambling expansion) is to get a bill done, and if that means throwing in the towel on slots in referendum counties, that’s the lesser of the various evils.”

If another SCOTUS opening occurs, will Charles Canady get a serious look?

According to Sen. Charles Grassley, the U.S. Supreme Court may need to fill another opening this summer. The Iowa Republican, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not name names, but rumors are swirling it could be the Court’s swing vote, 80-year-old Anthony Kennedy.

If that occurs, President Trump will go back to his list of 21 potential nominees, now numbering 20 after  the elevation of Neil Gorsuch. Rumored to be on the short list before Gorsuch’s selection was Judge William Pryor of Alabama from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Diane Sykes of Wisconsin from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Judge Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

If those rumors are true, will those three again go to the top? How about some of the others? Also on the Trump list are Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady and Judge Federico Moreno from the Southern District of Florida.

The next nominee will be an appeals court judge or a state supreme court justice. Moreno and Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee are the only two not fitting that description. Moreno’s logical next step is a promotion to the court of appeals.

Will Canady receive serious consideration this time? He has similar educational training to the current Court.

All 9 current justices studied law at either Harvard or Yale (Ruth Bader Ginsburg started at Harvard, but earned her law degree from Columbia). Canady earned his degree from Yale, while Pryor came from Tulane, Sykes from Marquette, and Hardiman from Georgetown. Gorsuch attended Harvard and Oxford.

As a former state legislator, four-term Congressman and General Counsel for Gov. Jeb Bush, Canady understands the separation of powers between the three branches of government. He was Chief Justice from 2010-2012 and along with Ricky Polston, comprise the Court’s reliable conservative minority.

If Gov. Rick Scott wanted to bend Trump’s ear about Canady, the President would certainly listen. There is no question Scott and Trump are of like minds on many topics in addition to jobs. Another Trump friend, Attorney General Pam Bondi, could do the same.

On the down side, Canady will be 63 years old in June. Next to Moreno (64) and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young, who is 65, Canady is the oldest on the list.

Pryor is 55, Sykes 58 and Hardiman is 52. The thought of having someone on the bench for 30 years is an appealing quality for a sitting president.

Confirmation hearings would certainly be lively. Millennials will not likely recall the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, but Canady was one of the House prosecutors. Would Democrats have fun with that?

How about being questioned by Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham? The South Carolina Republican was also one of the impeachment prosecutors (known as House Managers).

How juicy would it be for Canady to be tapped and for Charlie Crist to receive some credit for raising Canady’s profile? It was then-Governor Crist who appointed Canady to the Florida Supreme Court.

Perhaps Canady wound up on Trump’s list as a favor to Scott, or the president will actually give him a serious look. No one has retired yet, but that doesn’t stop playing the “what ifs” game in the meantime.

 

Supreme Court OKs gambling control, felon voting rights amendments

The state’s highest court on Thursday gave its approval for proposed state constitutional amendments on voter approval of new gambling and restoring voting rights to ex-cons.

But there’s a big ‘if’ before either can be placed on the 2018 statewide ballot—both amendments still need hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Moreover, Justices Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis dissented on the gambling amendment, saying “the ballot title and summary do not clearly inform the public that the proposed amendment may substantially affect slot machines approved by county-wide (referendums).”

The Florida Supreme Court does not pass judgment on subject matter, but reviews proposed amendments only to make sure they cover only one subject and that their ballot title and summary aren’t misleading.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has approved the language of this amendment,” said John Sowinski, chair of Voters In Charge, the group behind the “Voter Control of Gambling in Florida” amendment.

“(W)e can move forward with our efforts to ensure that Florida voters – not gambling industry influence and deal making – are the ultimate authority when it comes to deciding whether or not to expand gambling in our state,” he added in a statement.

Voters in Charge wants to “ensure that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling,” the ballot summary says.

The court, however, has not yet ruled in a case on Gretna Racing, the Gadsden County track seeking to add slot machines. Pari-mutuel interests have said Gretna and other facilities in counties where voters approved slots should be allowed to offer them.

If the court rules in favor, that could result in the single biggest gambling expansion in the state. The case has been pending since last June, when lawyers gave oral argument.

As of Thursday, state records showed the gambling amendment had 74,626 of the 766,200 valid signatures required for ballot placement.

“We will continue to collect the remaining petitions required to achieve ballot placement in 2018,” Sowinski said. “The expansion of gambling in Florida carries with it such significant consequences for our state that any decision to do so should rest with the people of Florida.’’

The “Voting Restoration Amendment,” backed by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, has 71,209 valid signatures. The court approved that amendment unanimously.

It aims to restore “the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” its summary says.

“The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis,” it adds.

“Today is a momentous day,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy. “The Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Voting Restoration Amendment to move forward marks a key milestone on our path to a stronger democracy and a fairer Florida … Those who have paid their debt to society deserve a second chance.”

ACLU of Florida Political Director Kirk Bailey said in a statement his organization was the “language approved today reflects the belief that those who have committed crimes should be punished, but once they have fulfilled the terms of that punishment, they should be restored to full citizenship.’

Florida is one of only three states with a lifetime ban on voting, he added: “This amendment modernizes Florida’s criminal justice rules by bringing our state in line with others nationwide.”

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet ended the automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights to nonviolent felons after their sentences are up, requiring at least a five-year waiting period before ex-convicts can apply to get their rights back.

Satellite TV

Supreme Court OKs taxing satellite TV higher than cable

Satellite-television service can be taxed at a higher rate than cable TV, the Florida Supreme Court decided Thursday.

Satellite companies had challenged the state’s 16-year-old Communications Services Tax (CST), which now taxes cable service at 4.92 percent and satellite at 9.07 percent.

Those concerns, led by DirecTV, said that difference was unconstitutional and asked for a refund.

But the high court reversed the 1st District Court of Appeal’s 2-1 decision, which said that taxing the two services differently is unconstitutional.

Then-1st DCA Judge Simone Marstiller, in her dissent, had said there is no discriminatory purpose in the CST because satellite and cable providers are not “similarly situated entities.”

“There is no evidence from the text of the statute that it was enacted with a discriminatory purpose,” said Thursday’s opinion by Justice Peggy A. Quince and joined by the other justices. New Justice C. Alan Lawson didn’t participate in the decision.

“Consequently, the (satellite TV companies) are not entitled to a refund of the taxes paid,” it added.

During oral argument last year, Justice Barbara Pariente had noted that “in the end, we’re really talking about the customer that either gets screwed or helped … It all gets passed on.”

A spokesman for AT&T, which now owns DirecTV, declined comment.

The case is Florida Department of Revenue, et al. vs. DirecTV Inc., et al., no. SC15-1249.

Governor’s office affirmed prosecutorial discretion, state attorneys’ independence, in letter last year

Among material filed Tuesday with Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s Florida Supreme Court challenge of Gov. Rick Scott‘s executive orders stripping cases from her is a year-old letter from his office affirming her position – that her prosecutorial decisions cannot be overridden.

Ayala’s attorneys Roy Austin Jr. of Washington D.C. and Marcos Hasbun of Tampa included the letter as an appendix to their writ of quo warranto, which asks the Florida Supreme Court to vacate Scott’s 23 executive orders used to strip cases from Ayala.

The governor issued those orders reassigning first-degree murder cases from her to 5th Ocala’s State Attorney Brad King because the governor believed she overstepped her authority when she claimed prosecutorial discretion and refused to pursue death penalties.

Yet almost exactly a year ago, April 21, 2016, Scott’s office wrote to support the prosecutorial discretion exercised by Ayala’s predecessor, then-9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Jeff Ashton, whom Ayala beat in the election last year. The letter came from Warren Davis in Scott’s Office of Citizen Services.

The governor’s office has not yet had a chance to review and respond to the filing and the appendix.

“Although we appreciate your concerns,” Davis wrote to concerned citizen in the 9th Judicial Circuit, “each state attorney is an elected official charged with certain discretionary duties, including the duty to determine whether or not to prosecute any particular crime committed within his or her jurisdiction. This decision is based on the quality and the quantity of the evidence of guilt shown, and in the best interest of justice.

“The state attorneys operate independently, and as elected officials, they answer only to the voters of their individual jurisdictions,” Davis’s letter continued.

Ayala’s petition for a writ, filed Tuesday by Austin and Hasbun, cites amendments to Article V, Section 17, to the Florida Constitution, adopted in 1972 and 1986 saying they “expressly required for the first time that ‘the state attorney shall be the prosecuting officer of all trial courts’ in his or her judicial circuit and made it clear that any exception to this must be ‘provided in this constitution.’

“Until the last few weeks,” the writ continues, “the Office of Governor Scott agreed that the Ninth Circuit State Attorney had discretion over the cases in his judicial circuit.” It then cites the April 21, 2016 letter.

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