Gainesville — With the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission set to hold a public hearing here Wednesday — the fifth of nine hearings scheduled throughout the state as a part of Florida’s unique, citizen-initiative constitutional revision process, which occurs every 20 years — several dozen law students at the University of Florida assembled Monday afternoon in an auditorium named in honor of the chairman of the state’s first CRC, Chesterfield Smith, to discuss the constitutional revision process with a member of the 1997-98 Commission, Jon Mills, and a historian of the state constitution, Mary Adkins.
One thing the students learned in the hourlong talk is that the CRC that convened this year is the first in Florida history that has not been chaired by a graduate of the UF law school.
“Here’s a fun fact,” said Adkins, whose book — Making Modern Florida: How the Spirit of Reform Shaped a New State Constitution — was published last year by University Press of Florida. “From the 1956 group that was created by statute to originally draft this constitution, through to the 1997-98 group, all of them were chaired by a UF law grad.”
Referring to the chair of the 2017-2018 CRC, Carlos Beruff — a real estate developer appointed last month by Gov. Rick Scott — Adkins added, “This particular chair is not a college graduate.”
“There are no minimum qualifications to be a member of the body that has the power to place constitutional amendments directly on the ballot,” she said.
A student spoke up to say he was “very disappointed” in that change in the leadership tradition of the CRC, but Adkins said, “It’s a new era, not a lot of looking toward the past. This is also the first (CRC) in which there are no members on this one that were ever on (a Florida CRC) in the past.”
Mills, who served on the previous CRC, is a dean emeritus of the UF law school and a member of its faculty. He urged students to attend the commission’s hearing and present the proposals they developed in his public policy practicum this semester.
“Many of you already have much more detail in your proposals than almost anybody, so I suggest you follow through,” he said. “I do encourage you to articulate those and put them in front of the commission.”
Mills — who represented Gainesville as a Democrat in the Florida House from 1978-88 and served as House speaker from 1987-88 — recalled a medical marijuana proposal that he opposed when it was presented to the 1997-98 CRC.
“Things you bring up may have their own life,” he told the students. “It may be wrong, but it may happen.”
Mills’ current practicum addresses “constitution-making by initiative and in the context of constitutional commissions,” according to the school’s online catalog. He said that his students have developed constitutional proposals aimed at “making elections broader and more accessible in terms of both registration and days to vote and issues dealing with reapportionment.”
Another proposal developed in his class would ensure that a minimum 1 percent of the state budget is used to fund the judiciary in Florida. Without such a provision in the state constitution, Florida’s judiciary “could be cut entirely,” Mills said, recalling resolutions filed in the state House and Senate this Session that urge the U.S. Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to allow Congress to reject judicial rulings.
Some other proposals UF law students have developed would raise the mandatory retirement age to 75 and repeal a prohibition on a state income tax in Florida, “giving us a little bit of fiscal flexibility,” said Trevor Tezel, a second-year law student from Cocoa Beach.
Adding human rights protections in the categories of “gender identity and sexual orientation” also “seems prudent,” he said.
The CRC hearing in Gainesville is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. at the UF Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. A CRC hearing is also set for Jacksonville Thursday and next month in Panama City, Fort Myers and Hillsborough County.