State and federal courts are expected in 2020 to grapple with high-profile Florida issues, ranging from felons’ voting rights to medical marijuana.
Here are snapshots of five key legal issues to watch in the new year:
CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS: The Florida Supreme Court will decide whether to sign off on proposed constitutional amendments that could go on the November ballot. Justices heard arguments in August on a controversial measure that would overhaul and deregulate the state’s electric-utility industry --- a measure that has drawn opposition from state leaders, business groups and incumbent utilities. It also heard arguments in early December on a proposal that would allow registered voters to cast ballots in primary elections regardless of party affiliation, an initiative opposed by the state Republican and Democratic parties. Other initiatives pending before the court focus on issues such as legalizing recreational marijuana and banning assault-style weapons. The Supreme Court considers whether the wording of ballot initiatives meets legal standards.
FELONS VOTING: Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and voting-rights and civil-rights groups are battling in state and federal courts about how to carry out a 2018 constitutional amendment aimed at restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. The disputes at the Florida Supreme Court and in federal courts focus on a law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature during the 2019 session that requires felons to pay “legal financial obligations,” such as restitution, fines and fees, to be eligible to have voting rights restored. Republican lawmakers contend the law properly carries out the amendment’s requirement of felons completing terms of their sentences, but critics liken it to a poll tax that will keep many felons from having their rights restored.
GUNS: A federal judge has scheduled a trial in October in the National Rifle Association’s constitutional challenge to a 2018 state law that raised from 18 to 21 the minimum age to purchase rifles and other long guns in Florida. Lawmakers and then-Gov. Rick Scott approved the change after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A state appeals court also is expected in 2020 to weigh a challenge by cities and counties to a 2011 state law that threatens stiff penalties -- including fines and potential removal from office -- if local elected officials approve gun regulations. A Leon County circuit judge found the law unconstitutional, spurring lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody to go to the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA: The state’s medical-marijuana industry has spawned a massive amount of litigation in recent years, but a Florida Supreme Court case could lead to what some attorneys for pot companies describe as a “seismic shift.” The case centers on how the Legislature carried out a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. Lower courts sided with arguments by the Tampa firm Florigrown that a key part of a law passed in 2017 conflicted with the constitutional amendment. That part of the law involves what is known as “vertical integration” --- a system in which a limited number of companies that receive medical marijuana licenses handle all aspects of the cannabis trade, including growing, processing and distributing the products. The Florida Department of Health took the case to the Supreme Court.
WATER WAR: The U.S. Supreme Court in 2020 could resolve Florida’s long-running fight with Georgia about water in the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay, after a special master issued a report that dealt a major blow to Florida. The special master, Senior U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Paul J. Kelly, was appointed by the Supreme Court to make a recommendation about whether Georgia should be forced to share more water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which links the two states. Florida, which filed the lawsuit in 2013, contends that Georgia’s water use has damaged the Apalachicola River and the vital oyster industry in the Franklin County bay. But Kelly filed a report Dec. 11 recommending that the Supreme Court reject Florida’s request for an order “equitably apportioning” water in the river system.