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    A Times Editorial

    No on Amendment 1

    The measure attacks the independence of our state courts and would have little impact on executions, beyond allowing them for child offenders.


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 13, 2002


    A voter without a law degree and a special interest in Tallahassee gamesmanship is not going to understand the wording of, or the impetus behind, Amendment 1. The ballot question is a whopping 714 words and full of confusing legalities -- and it is worth voting down for that reason alone. But the real reason this monstrosity deserves to be deep-sixed is that it strips Florida courts of the power to interpret our state Constitution.

    This amendment is the result of a yearslong skirmish between the Legislature and the Florida Supreme Court, driven by the Legislature's obsession with the death penalty.

    After a number of execution mishaps -- including an occasion when fire seemed to shoot from a condemned prisoner's head -- the Legislature worried that the Florida Supreme Court might intervene to prevent the electric chair's further use. In a rush to protect Old Sparky, the Legislature put an amendment on the ballot in 1998 to prevent the court from finding electrocution a cruel method of punishment unless the U.S. Supreme Court so ruled. The amendment, titled the "Preservation of the Death Penalty," was approved overwhelmingly.

    But in 2000, the Florida Supreme Court set the amendment aside. The court said the ballot summary was misleading, because it focused exclusively on the death penalty and didn't inform voters that the proposed changes would affect the way all punishments are evaluated. The ballot language would have altered the state Constitution from prohibiting cruel or unusual punishments to prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments, mirroring the wording of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment also would have prevented Florida courts from interpreting that protection any more broadly than the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The Legislature presumed that the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court would be more likely to uphold the use of the electric chair than Florida's Supreme Court. Ironically, the opposite situation seemed to unfold. Despite some gruesomely botched executions, the state's high court approved of the continued use of the electric chair, but the U.S. Supreme Court made a move indicating it might end the practice. To preclude the possibility that the state would be left without a method of execution, the Legislature approved a new law putting prisoners to death by lethal injection.

    You might think that would put an end to the need for a constitutional amendment. But the Legislature, in its pique over having its death penalty initiative set aside, resurrected the language for the 2002 ballot. Then, to keep the Florida Supreme Court from asserting that the ballot summary doesn't fully describe the function of the amendment, the Legislature wrote a summary that is longer than the text of the amendment itself.

    It had to change the law to do so.

    For everyone else submitting a ballot initiative, summaries are limited to 75 words for the purposes of ensuring clarity. But the Legislature voted to exempt itself from this restriction. As a result, Amendment 1 offers voters a summary that is so dense and complex it is doubtful many will bother slogging through it. Those who do will hardly be expected to understand the rights they are giving up -- the summary doesn't bother spelling those out. Unfortunately, a challenge to the confusing language by state elections officials was unsuccessful.

    It attacks the independence of our state courts by giving the U.S. Supreme Court the authority to determine limits on the modes of punishment and length of sentences that may be imposed for various criminal offenses, murder being only one. It would also call into question the extent to which the Florida Supreme Court could evaluate whether criminal sentences are "unusual" or uniformly applied and proportionate to the offense.

    And one immediate practical consequence of the measure's passage would be to allow for the execution of offenders who commited their crimes at 16 years of age. In 1999, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state Constitution barred the death penalty for offenders who commited their crimes when they were that young. But the U.S. Supreme Court has said the federal Constitution does not forbid it. If the amendment passed, the federal court's view would control.

    Amendment 1 is an irresponsible attempt by the Legislature to further erode the power of the state judiciary. Floridians should not be taken in by the seemingly pro-death penalty language. This amendment would have little impact on executions beyond allowing them for child offenders. The Times strongly urges a "no" vote.

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