Fla. Supreme Court faces pension, medical malpractice decisions

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Leaving behind months of political turbulence, the Florida Supreme Court in 2013 could decide a series of high-profile cases dealing with issues such as the state pension system and medical-malpractice lawsuits, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

Justices have already heard arguments in the cases, but as is common, have not yet ruled. It is clear, however, that state leaders and a wide range of interest groups are waiting for the decisions, which, at least in one case, could have a major impact on Florida’s budget.

While the Supreme Court’s behind-the-scenes deliberations are private, three justices will be able to work without having to worry that they could be ousted from their jobs. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince won merit-retention elections in November after weathering a controversial attempt by some conservative groups to drive them off the court.

The court will issue dozens of opinions in 2013, but here are five cases to watch:

GOVERNMENT WORKER PENSIONS: The Supreme Court is considering whether to uphold a 2011 law that requires government employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to the state retirement system.

A Leon County circuit judge, pointing to a 1974 law, ruled that the requirement could not be imposed on workers who had been hired before July 1, 2011. That ruling was a victory for the Florida Education Association and other groups, which argue that already-existing employees had a contractual right that protected them from having to contribute to their pensions.

“You can’t change the game in the middle of the game (for already-existing employees),” FEA attorney Ron Meyer told justices during arguments in September.

But the state contends that the Legislature had the power to require the pension contributions, which took effect July 1. Also, it says a court decision striking down the employee pension contributions would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

“If the Florida Supreme Court affirms all or part of the circuit court decision in the … retirement litigation, the impact to the state budget will be substantial,” said a long-range financial outlook presented to lawmakers this month by the state Office of Economic & Demographic Research.

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE CAPS: A decade after lawmakers overhauled the medical-malpractice system to try to reduce insurance costs, the Supreme Court is poised to rule on damage limits that were a centerpiece of the legislation.

The estate of Michelle McCall, a Panhandle woman who died in 2006 from complications after giving birth, is challenging the 2003 law’s limits on what are known as “non-economic damages” that can be recovered in malpractice cases. The law included limits of $500,000 or $1 million, depending on the circumstances and number of people involved in a case.

Arguing that she had not received proper care, McCall’s estate sued the federal government because she was part of a military family and was treated by Air Force staff. A judge found that her survivors should receive $2 million in non-economic damages, but the award was reduced to $1 million because of the state law limiting such damages.

Critics argue, in part, that the limits restrict medical-malpractice victims’ access to the courts. But during Supreme Court arguments in February, Daniel Lenerz, a U.S. Justice Department attorney representing the federal government in the case, said lawmakers had substantial evidence the limits were needed to hold down costs and to stabilize the medical-malpractice insurance market.

Lenerz argued that overturning the law “would perpetuate this boom and bust cycle that has afflicted” the market.

BOARD OF GOVERNORS POWERS: Amid a broader debate about the costs of attending state universities, the Supreme Court is considering a long-running legal dispute about the powers of the Florida Board of Governors.

The lawsuit, filed against the Legislature by a group that includes former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, centers on whether a 2002 constitutional amendment establishing the board gave it the authority to set tuition and fees. The constitutional amendment does not spell out that power, but plaintiffs argue it implicitly does.

“All of the Legislature’s authority goes over based on the constitutional amendment, unless there is a constitutional exception,” attorney Robin Gibson, who represented Graham, said during October arguments.

But opponents dispute that position, pointing to the Legislature’s constitutional power to raise and appropriate money. They argue that the 2002 constitutional amendment was not meant to give the Board of Governors the types of power sought in the case.

The 1st District Court of Appeal in 2011 sided with the Legislature’s arguments, saying it saw nothing in the constitutional amendment that “divested the Legislature of its ‘power of the purse’ over state university tuition and fees by vesting that authority in the board.”

NUCLEAR PROJECT COSTS: Hoping to encourage additional nuclear power, lawmakers in 2006 approved a measure that allows utilities to pass along project costs to customers long before new nuclear plants start generating electricity.

But the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has spearheaded a challenge to the law in the Supreme Court, contending that the measure gives too much decision-making authority to the Florida Public Service Commission. The case centers on the approval of proposals by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy to pass along costs for new reactors in Miami-Dade and Levy counties that will not start operating for another decade, if ever.

Brian Armstrong, an attorney for the South Florida city of Pinecrest, which has sided with the Southern Alliance, told justices during October arguments that lawmakers “left unbridled discretion to the commission.”

Attorneys for the PSC and the utilities, however, contend that the law is being properly carried out and that lawmakers were trying to provide incentives for more nuclear power.

“The Legislature made that policy determination that they want to encourage investment in nuclear plants,” PSC attorney Samantha Cibula said during the arguments.

IN-VITRO CUSTODY CASE: In a first-of-its-kind case in Florida, the Supreme Court is trying to sort out a parental-rights dispute between two women who used in-vitro fertilization to have a child and then broke off their same-sex relationship.

The Brevard County case is complicated, in large part, because one of the women provided an egg that was fertilized and implanted in the other woman, who later gave birth. After the relationship ended, the woman who gave birth blocked her former partner from having parental rights.

The 5th District Court of Appeal ruled that the woman who provided the egg should have parental rights, setting up the Supreme Court case. She also has received legal backing from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, which works on gay and lesbian civil-rights issues.

During an October hearing, justices questioned whether a state law even contemplated such a situation or whether the law was designed to address anonymous sperm and egg donors, who don’t have parental rights.

The women, who are identified in court documents only by their initials, were in a relationship from 1995 to 2006. The child was two years old when they separated.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.