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2016 Legislative Food Fights: Legal, judicial reforms again on lawmakers’ to-do list

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They don’t get as much attention as policy debates that gum up and even fracture legislative sessions (think Medicaid expansion), but a slew of proposed legal-related changes will be before legislators this year – some new, some old standbys.

For instance, the Legislature will try to overhaul Florida’s alimony law for at least the third time in recent years.

The same sides have aligned against each other: Ex-spouses – largely men – who say “forever alimony” isn’t fair, and their former mates – mostly women – who counter that they shouldn’t be penalized for having difficulty re-entering the work world because they stayed home to raise children.

A House bill (HB 455), sponsored by Republican state Rep. Colleen Burton of Lakeland, is already on the move, having cleared its first committee in November along party lines.

Burton’s bill effectively would end permanent alimony by limiting judges’ discretion in awarding it after a divorce by providing a preset formula for how much an ex-spouse should get and for how long.

Another measure (SB 250) pushed by state Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican, also has child-sharing provisions that have caused a commotion in prior sessions.

That bill, which hasn’t yet had a hearing, creates a legal presumption that “approximately equal time-sharing with a minor child by both parents is … in the (child’s) best interest.”

Judicial term limits also is on the docket. It’s a pet project of House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran, who included it in an 86-page policy paper he wrote with other House members that calls for a new “legislative culture of purpose.”

“No public office – be it state representative, governor or judge – should be for life,” Corcoran has said.

Coincidentally, it comes in the wake of House Republican displeasure with the state Supreme Court over what the controlling GOP caucus perceives to be overly liberal interpretations of law by most of its justices.

A measure (HB 197) that would impose term limits on Florida’s appellate-level judges has cleared its first House committee. It would limit district court of appeal judges and state Supreme Court justices to two terms on the bench. They now can serve unlimited six-year terms until mandatory retirement at 70.

More obscure, technical proposals also are coming back, after languishing in past sessions.

One of those is a bill (HB 203) affecting estoppel letters, an obscure part of some real estate closings, has returned, after dying last year. They’re legal documents sent by a homeowners association, detailing any amount owed to the association. Usually, that’s unpaid fines or association fees left by owners who defaulted on their mortgage.

Title agents and Realtors want to shift the cost of preparing such letters from themselves back to the associations. But Mark Anderson, a lobbyist for the statewide association of community association managers, says preparing estoppel letters takes time and research, costing anywhere from $15 to $400.

State Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Miami-Dade Democrat, disputed that story, saying all homeowners associations “do is punch a button on a computer … It’s been a ripoff for a while.”

This year may bring better fortune to estoppel changes; the issue has been re-branded by PR man Kevin Cate as “smashing the Home Tax.”

Another issue being watched by lawmakers already passed the Legislature but still isn’t being implemented.

In 2013, the Legislature approved and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the changing of Florida’s expert evidence rule to the Daubert standard used by federal courts and most states.

But the courts have yet to follow it, and The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors recently voted to recommend to the Florida Supreme Court against doing so.

Florida used the Frye standard, which asks whether expert testimony is “generally accepted” in a particular scientific community. Daubert is stricter scientifically and can often require a kind of “mini-trial” even before an expert can appear in front of jurors.

It’s generally considered easier for plaintiffs to get damaging expert testimony before a jury under Frye, and much harder to do so under Daubert. That’s why the latter became a favorite of the defense bar and its big business clients.

The courts have avoided having to follow the change because of a question over whether switching the expert testimony rule is substantive or procedural. Generally under the state constitution, the Legislature has authority over the “substance” of court operations and the courts decide matters purely of “procedure.”

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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