When President Barack Obama adopted a policy last year aimed at allowing some young, undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States, he likely didn’t know it would cause heartburn for Gov. Rick Scott about a year later.
The “deferred action” program didn’t give citizenship or permanent-resident status to anyone living illegally in the country, but it did grant two-year non-deportation promises to undocumented immigrants under 30 who met certain conditions.
Then this week, Scott chose to veto a measure that would have added deferred-action status to the list of documents that the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles could accept as proof of identity or legal presence for driver’s license applications.
Scott’s decision might have played well with his conservative base, but even Tropical Storm Andrea could not sweep away the Democratic furor over Scott’s decision to nix the bill. And Republican legislators acted like they were under a tornado warning, scrambling to avoid questions about why they differed with Scott about the measure and whether it would undermine the party’s efforts.
Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida offers this round-up of the week’s events.
NO HABLA VETAR
The uproar started after Scott vetoed the bill Tuesday. While saying that the legislation (HB 235) might have had good intentions, he slammed the idea of relying on Obama’s deferred action policy. Republicans have argued that the program is an abuse of the administration’s authority.
“Deferred action status is simply a policy of the Obama Administration, absent congressional direction, designed to dictate removal action decisions using DHS agency discretion,” Scott wrote in his veto letter to Secretary of State Ken Detzner. “It was never passed by Congress, nor is it a promulgated rule. Given that deferred action status does not confer substantive rights or lawful status upon an individual, Florida is best served by relying on current state law.”
But, however sound they were, Scott’s legal arguments soon collided with political reality in a state where Hispanic residents made up an estimated 23 percent of the population in 2011, according to the Census Bureau.
Across the nation, Republicans did poorly with Hispanic voters in 2012, and especially non-Cuban Hispanic voters, a growing population in Florida. So Democrats were quick to pounce on Scott’s veto of the measure in an effort to prove that the GOP isn’t in tune with Latinos on the critical issue of immigration reform.
Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said the veto could be seen as “anti-Hispanic.”
“It’s hard for people to realize the America dream if you don’t have a driver license and most jobs require you to commute, so I think it’s more than symbolic,” Soto said. “It’s something that is needed in America to succeed.”
Democrats continued that pattern for most of the week, with lawmaker after lawmaker lining up to issue press releases decrying the veto.
Republicans came down in one of two places: Either commenting in defense of Scott’s veto, or choosing not to comment at all. Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry took the former path.
“National immigration has to be solved,” Curry said. “If Sen. Soto and his pals care about that, why don’t they engage in the national discussion instead of just throwing spitballs from the sidelines?”
Lawmakers largely maintained radio silence. A spokesman for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, issued a terse statement when asked about the veto and the potential fallout for House members who supported the legislation.
“The Legislature exercised its right to support HB 235 by passing it and it’s the Governor’s prerogative to veto it,” he said.
Scott also spent some time signing bills that drew establishment Republican support, including a pair of measures that gave victories to doctors and businesses in the fight over lawsuits in Florida, On Wednesday, Scott attached his name to measures leading to changes for expert witnesses in medical-malpractices cases (SB 1792) and ceremonially signed a bill (HB 7015) meant to get rid of “junk science” in lawsuits.
“By signing these important bills, we’ll improve the business climate in the Sunshine State, which means more jobs and opportunities for Florida families,” said Scott in a news release following the Jacksonville event where he signed the bills.
Not everyone agreed. The Florida Justice Association, a major trial lawyers’ organization, said any benefits from the bill will come at the expense of injured patients and consumers. Debra Henley, the association’s executive director, took aim at the malpractice bill.
“The law is anti-consumer and further tips the scales of justice against patients and the families of patients who are killed or injured as a result of medical negligence,” Henley said.
The medical-malpractice bill will require that expert witnesses have the same specialties as the physicians who are defendants in medical-negligence cases. That is a stricter standard than current law, which allows them to have similar specialties.
Another heavily debated part of the bill could lead to what are known as “ex parte communications” between defense attorneys and doctors who are not parties to the lawsuits but have treated the plaintiffs. Such communications would happen outside the presence of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The other measure (HB 7015), which Scott signed before a Tuesday deadline, will lead to Florida using the same expert-witness standards as are used in federal courts. Those guidelines are sometimes known in legal circles as the “Daubert” standards.
Other changes could be on the way. The Florida Supreme Court on Monday grappled with a 2011 law that requires out-of-state physicians to be certified by the Florida Department of Health before they can testify in the Sunshine State. Justices are considering a rule lining up with that standard.
Opponents echoed the arguments against the bills Scott signed: The measures would make it harder to sue in Florida.
“The purpose of this is to make it more difficult for plaintiffs to get experts,” said Sean Domnick, a Palm Beach Gardens attorney who argued against the proposal.
There were definitive results elsewhere in the court system. U.S. District Judge James Cohn rebuffed an attempt by a pair of Broward County senior arcades to bar key parts of a law cracking down on Internet cafes.
The arcades — Boardwalk Brothers, Inc., and Play It Again FLA, LLC — had argued that the law was unconstitutionally vague and arbitrary and violated the First Amendment rights of seniors who gather at the arcades.
Cohn essentially said no dice.
“(The) state has a significant interest in proscribing the behavior regulated in the statute,” Cohn wrote. “Plaintiffs have failed to articulate any interest they have which overrides the state’s substantial interest in regulating gambling.”
And the 1st District Court of Appeal threw out a lower court’s ruling blocking the state from privatizing inmate health care at state prisons, saying the policy clearly followed legislative intent even if it wasn’t always explicitly spelled out in the budget.
“Outside the [budget], however, there is ample evidence, not only that the department was authorized to privatize inmate health services, but that the Legislature intends for such privatization to occur,” wrote Judge Stephanie Ray.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott angers lawmakers, particularly Democrats, by vetoing a bill that would have expanded the kinds of paperwork that could be used as identification to obtain driver’s licenses to include papers from President Barack Obama’s deferred action program.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It would be nice to have a member of the executive branch that hasn’t been the target of a federal investigation.”–Joshua Karp, spokesman for the Democratic Party, on the fact that Scott has not yet selected a replacement for former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. Carroll resigned after an investigation into a company she consulted for, but she was never charged and has said she doesn’t believe she was a target of the probe.