The under-reported story of Florida politics: Courts pushing back against GOP agenda

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When Republicans returned to Tallahassee in 2011 with the Legislature firmly under control and a solidly conservative governor taking over for the moderate Charlie Crist, they were emboldened to push an aggressive agenda, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Sweeping changes to the state’s elections laws were approved, welfare recipients were required to undergo drug testing and state workers were stuck paying 3 percent of their income toward their own pension plan for the first time in decades.

Often over Democratic objections, the majority privatized prisons across the southern third of the state, restricted the ability of doctors to ask patients if they had guns at home and sent to voters a constitutional amendment allowing the state to provide funding to faith-based organizations.

All of those measures have now faced a court challenge of some sort, part of a legal pushback by more progressive groups against the new Republican proposals. Several have been halted by judges and others are in limbo as the cases are considered. And lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott are beginning to chafe at the volume and results of the legal showdowns.

“It’s disappointing when the judiciary thinks they’re the Legislature and the governor, when we pass a bill that’s clearly constitutional, and they declare it unconstitutional,” Scott said in a recent interview with the News Service of Florida.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, sees the challenges as nothing more than an effort to undermine the Legislature’s agenda by its ideological opponents.

“What have liberals historically done?” Haridopolos asked rhetorically in another recent interview. “When they can’t win elections, they go to the courts.”

Among some of the more notable cases, and where they stand now:

–Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford sounded openly skeptical of the pension changes during oral arguments in October, momentarily walking down from the bench to discuss the merits of the overhaul with a lawyer for the state and saying of one state employee: “It’s like you’re punishing him for continuing to work”;

–Fulford barred the state from moving forward with the privatization plan in a September ruling, then ruled again that the state should “cease and desist” from taking further steps toward accepting bids for a prison-privatization plan while the case was on appeal;

–The welfare drug testing standards were struck down by U.S. District Court Judge Mary Scriven in October in a ruling that has been appealed;

–The “docs vs. glocks” bill was blocked by U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in September while the merits of the challenge to the bill are being debated. Physicians say barring them from asking about firearms breaches their First Amendment right to free speech;

–The ballot summary language for the constitutional amendment on removing restrictions from tax dollars going to religious organizations was rejected earlier this month, though the summary has since been revised by Attorney General Pam Bondi.

At the same time, the elections law is part of a complicated legal battle that includes a state lawsuit to get “preclearance” for the changes under the Voting Rights Act, among others.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning has challenged the section of federal law that requires preclearance for five Florida counties because of a history of racial discrimination. Meanwhile, voting-rights groups have filed a legal challenge to sections of the law dealing with voter registration and former Republican Sen. Nancy Argenziano, now an Independent, has challenged another portion that would keep her from running for Congress as a Democrat.

Haridopolos took a veiled shot at Fulford, who as a circuit judge in Tallahassee has drawn some of the cases and ruled against the Legislature, when talking about the suits.

“They have a judge in Tallahassee who’s been very helpful, and I disagree with her opinion, and I think that the precedents and the law [are] on our side,” he said.

At the same time, when discussing a lawsuit that Palm Beach County filed against a state law overriding local firearms restrictions, Haridopolos acknowledged that the GOP-led state itself is party to an effort to strike down a federal law that many Republicans find noxious: The health-care plan approved by Congress and signed by President Obama last year.

“Sometimes,” Haridopolos said, “governments disagree.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, 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.