The court heard arguments in a range of controversial cases that included a parental-rights fight between former lesbian partners; an undocumented immigrant’s attempt to become a lawyer; a long-running debate about nuclear-power costs; and a dispute about university tuition.
Meanwhile, three justices fought back in a political battle with Republican leaders and conservatives who want them replaced.
Outside the court, regulators approved new rates for Citizens Property Insurance Corp. customers for 2013, while business groups and the state’s consumer advocate traded salvos about an effort to reduce the number of policies in the state-backed insurance pool.
A round-up via the News Service of Florida.
JUDGES ON THE HOT SEAT
The Supreme Court typically hears oral arguments one week each month. And this week was a doozy.
The court heard arguments about whether the Florida Board of Governors has the power to determine tuition and fees for public universities, a power that if granted would take that authority away from the Legislature..
A skeptical court listened as an attorney for a group led by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham argued that a 2002 constitutional amendment establishing the Board of Governors implicitly gave it the authority to set tuition and fees.
Justices also said they may be powerless to let an undocumented immigrant practice law in the state, despite recent federal moves to create a pathway to permanent status for immigrants brought to the country as children.
In a case that has drawn national attention, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners asked justices to weigh in on whether it should waive rules, set up in 2008, and allow Jose Godinez-Samperio to be accepted as a Bar member despite the fact he is currently illegally residing in the country.
In another case, the court raised doubts about a challenge to a 2006 law that has led to customers of two utilities paying for future nuclear reactors that might not be built.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy filed the legal challenge after the PSC late last year approved allowing Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida to pass along about $282 million in nuclear-project costs to customers in 2012.
From nuclear power to nuclear family, the court also heard arguments in a legal battle that raises new questions about parental rights after the break-up of same-sex relationships.
A Brevard County case pits two women who were lesbian partners when they decided to have a child. It is unique 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.
Florida law gives egg or sperm donors limited rights, but some justices wondered if the laws were written with anonymous donors in mind and did not reflect other situations.
At one point, Justice Barbara Pariente raised the scenario of a man who impregnates a woman in a “one-night stand” and receives parental rights. She questioned whether two women who decide to raise a child should have lesser rights and said that could create issues of equal protection.
In most years, merit retention votes don’t draw much attention, as sitting appellate judges and Supreme Court justices quietly return to office.
This year, some conservative groups and the Republican Party of Florida are attempting to unseat three veteran justices who have repeatedly come under fire from conservatives for rulings going back more than a decade.
On Friday, Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince attended a forum at the Florida State University College of Law to talk about merit retention as the trio tries to counter the push to send them packing.
Collectively, they have raised more than $1 million to keep their jobs. Last month, the RPOF voted to officially oppose the justices for a series of rulings that have not gone Republicans’ way. Among others joining the fight is Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.
The justices have been joined by a group, Defend Justice from Politics, which supports their retention efforts.
CITIZENS IN THE NEWS
The state-backed insurer was in the news this week as the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation approved rates for 2013 that will boost premiums by 10.8 percent for Citizens Property Insurance Corp. customers.
Following more than a month of review and multiple hearings by Citizens board members and the agency, OIR approved new rates that will affect most of the company’s 1.4 million customers on policies renewed after Jan. 1.
State lawmakers and OIR officials have been trying to boost Citizens rates in recent years to make them more comparable to rates that would be charged by the private market in some of the riskiest areas of the state.
Lawmakers, however, limited annual increases to 10 percent, a cap that critics say has hindered efforts to depopulate the state-run pool that has become the largest property insurer in the state. The cap, however, does not include higher costs for hurricane catastrophe insurance, resulting in rates climbing higher than 10 percent.
The rate hikes come amid growing efforts by Citizens to reduce its ranks. This week, a plan to use $350 million in surplus to coax private companies into taking policies out of Citizens drew concern from Florida’s insurance consumer advocate, who called on the insurer to provide much more data surrounding the proposed loan program.
In a letter to Citizens Chairman Carlos Lacasa, consumer advocate Robin Westcott put forth a lengthy list of questions surrounding a deal approved in September by Citizens’ board of governors to provide 20-year, low interest loans to private carriers to partially offset the risks associated with Citizens policies.
Business groups, led by Associated Industries of Florida, jumped to Citizens’ defense, saying the loan program is needed to help re-invigorate the state’s private insurance market.
Florida’s effort to remove non-citizens from the ranks of voters took another step forward this week. A federal judge ruled that there’s no time limit for the state to push for the removal of voters who were never supposed to be registered, and an effort to clean the rolls of non-citizens can continue until the November election.
Judge William Zloch ruled that Secretary of State Ken Detzner is within the law in seeking the removal of voters from the rolls who were never supposed to be there. Opponents contended federal law prevented such purges within 90 days of the election.
“Certainly, the “National Voter Registration Act” does not require the State to idle on the sidelines until a non-citizen violates the law before the State can act,” Zloch wrote.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Supreme Court took up a series of high-profile cases, which dealt with issues such as university tuition, nuclear power costs and the admission of an undocumented immigrant to the Florida Bar.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “So if you have sex the good old-fashioned way … it’s constitutional, but anything else” doesn’t get the same status? Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente during arguments in parental-rights case involving two women who were in a same-sex relationship.