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Supreme Court Weighs Assault Weapon, Pot Proposals

Feb 5, 2020

Florida Supreme Court justices appeared critical Tuesday of proposed constitutional amendments aimed at preventing possession of assault-style weapons and allowing people to use recreational marijuana. 

During back-to-back hearings that lasted nearly two hours, justices repeatedly questioned attorneys about whether the wording of the proposed amendments would be misleading to voters. Supporters of the proposals did not submit enough petition signatures to get on the 2020 ballot but would need approval from the Supreme Court if they want to go before voters in 2022.

The Supreme Court considers whether ballot titles and summaries --- the wording that voters would see at polling places --- meet legal requirements.

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office and groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce argued that the proposed constitutional amendments should be blocked, while lawyers for the amendment sponsors Ban Assault Weapons NOW and the pro-pot Sensible Florida argued that the measures should be cleared to go on the ballot.

“A ballot summary may not be affirmatively misleading to the voters in describing what the result of the proposed amendment would do,” said Daniel Nordby, an attorney who argued for the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other groups against the recreational marijuana measure.

But Michael Minardi, who argued on behalf of Sensible Florida, defended the wording of the group’s proposal, which says, in part, that it would lead to regulating marijuana in a “manner similar to alcohol.”

“The summary is not misleading,” Minardi said after justices heard arguments. “It informs the voters that what we are trying to do is regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol for adults 21-plus, allow limited cultivation and licensing restrictions for businesses.”

In both cases, justices focused on detailed wording issues.

For example, the summary of the gun proposal says, in part, that it would prohibit “possession of assault weapons, defined as semiautomatic rifles and shotguns capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition at once, either in fixed or detachable magazine, or any other ammunition-feeding device.”

Justices repeatedly probed another part of the summary that would provide an exemption to the ban for people who already own such weapons. They questioned whether that part of the summary contradicted wording in the full text of the amendment and, as a result, would be misleading to voters.

The possible contradiction involved whether the exemption would attach to weapons or the people who possess the weapons. The distinction could be important, for instance, if a gun owner dies.

Jon Mills, an attorney for Ban Assault Weapons NOW, said the exemption, which also includes a registration requirement, would apply to people who have the guns. He said “possession is the continual issue. It does not make sense to say that a weapon lawfully possessed itself.”

But Chief Justice Charles Canady and other justices repeatedly pointed to wording in the ballot summary that said the amendment exempts and “requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date.”

“It seems like the natural understanding of that, looking at it in its full context, is that it is making reference to assault weapons that were lawfully possessed prior to the provision’s  effective date, and it’s exempting them and requiring registration of them,” Canady said. “But I don’t know how anybody would get an idea from that that when the person who possessed it trundles off this earth that, all of a sudden, that weapon becomes illegal and is no longer exempt. Because it refers to an exemption of assault weapons. So help me understand if there is anything else that would cast a different light on that. Because if it means that, if I am reading that correctly, then that is affirmatively misleading.”

Justice Ricky Polston asked about what would happen if an assault-style weapon is inherited after the death of an owner who had an exemption. He asked if the weapon would then become illegal.

“It is illegal, and they need to turn it in,” Mills responded.

“Under the text of the amendment it is illegal?” Polston asked. “That is a contrary reading, I would submit, to what the summary says. Why is that not the case?”

In probing the recreational-marijuana amendment, justices questioned issues such as a lack of reference to the “legalization” of marijuana. The summary refers to regulating marijuana for “limited use.”

“When I look at the reference to limited use, regulates marijuana for limited use, I don’t see how that adequately discloses the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana,” Canady said.