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Justice's speech harsh on politicos

The state's Supreme Court chief justice criticizes lawmakers for, she says, underfunding foster care and not acting on a proposed death penalty change.

Published May 20, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente on Friday criticized lawmakers for underfunding child welfare programs and for misinterpreting a death penalty opinion issued by the court last year.

In a speech before nearly 100 children's advocates at the Salvation Army in St. Petersburg, Pariente said Florida ranks 47th in the nation in funding foster care programs.

"That's unacceptable," she said.

Pariente noted that 500,000 children are in foster care each year in the United States. About 100,000 of those children - most of them teens or kids with troubled pasts - never get placed in homes.

"We've got to care for these children - not just when they're cute little kids," she said. "We have to care when they're middle schoolers. ... We have to care when they're acting out."

In interviews with the St. Petersburg Times before and after her speech, Pariente also said she was disappointed that lawmakers misunderstood a Supreme Court decision last year that urged the Legislature to consider changes to death penalty law.

The opinion, penned by Justice Raoul G. Cantero, said Florida stands alone among the nation's 38 death penalty states because it does not require any unanimous agreement among jurors who dispatch a defendant to death row.

Every other death penalty state requires jurors to either unanimously agree to a death sentence or to unanimously agree on why the case qualifies for a death sentence. Some states require unanimity on both.

Pariente said some lawmakers misunderstood the opinion to mean the court was telling the Legislature that the sentences themselves must be unanimous.

"It's disappointing when the message that is conveyed is not understood," Pariente said.

A proposal to require a unanimous jury vote for the death penalty died in session this year.

Pariente said Florida could allow jurors to recommend a death sentence by majority vote and just require jurors to unanimously agree that certain aggravating circumstances, which are often called "aggravators," exist to qualify the case for the death penalty. The jurors then could weigh the aggravators with mitigating circumstances.

Some lawmakers have said some of Florida's worst killers, including Ted Bundy, would have been spared the death penalty under such a plan.

Pariente said that's not accurate. She said other states with such a system still routinely send the worst killers to death row.

She said the opinion's real intent was to suggest that the Legislature keep its death penalty laws in line with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions about the jury's role in deciding a death sentence. If the Legislature doesn't do that, the state's death penalty could be on shaky constitutional ground, the chief justice said.

"It would be prudent, in light of cases that have come out of the U.S. Supreme Court, for it to be required that there be unanimous findings on the aggravators," Pariente said.

Pariente started the day listening to testimony from a number of foster children who described their experiences in the state system. She said their stories were powerful and moving.

In her speech, Pariente said child welfare programs will succeed only with the support of the community and the state government, which she criticized for underfunding guardian ad litem and foster care programs.

Pariente had praise, however, for the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Pinellas and Pasco counties. She said this area had the first juvenile welfare board in the nation in 1946. She also toured the Salvation Army's facility for youths from troubled homes.

During the interviews, Pariente also said the state Supreme Court faces a challenge in deciding issues of public access vs. privacy in the Internet age. While she supports making public court documents available online, she doesn't want that to infringe on people's privacy - especially families and children.

"It needs to be a balance," she said.

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 06:44:46]

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