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Connerly plan attacked in court

Meanwhile, more than 20,000 protesters are expected to march against Gov. Bush's One Florida plan this morning.

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By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- As thousands prepared to march on the Capitol today to protest Gov. Jeb Bush's affirmative action overhaul, lawyers attacked Ward Connerly's far more sweeping proposal before the state's highest court.

Bus loads of protesters, more than 20,000 by some estimates, are expected to arrive in Tallahassee early today to march against Bush's One Florida plan, reaching the steps of the old Capitol just as Bush delivers his State of the State address on the opening day of the 2000 Legislature.

Meanwhile, within the more ceremonious settings of the Florida Supreme Court, supporters and opponents of the Connerly proposal were given a total of 70 minutes to make their points Monday.

Connerly, a California businessman, is leading a petition drive to create constitutional amendments that would end existing affirmative action policies. But before going to voters, the wording and scope of the amendments must pass muster in the Florida Supreme Court.

"Isn't this a wolf in sheep's clothing?" Justice Harry Lee Anstead asked Thomas M. Ervin Jr., a Tallahassee lawyer arguing on behalf of the Connerly amendments. "Is that really what's going on here?"

Opposing lawyers repeatedly told justices that the Connerly amendments were not what they seem, drafted in benign language to cloud their intention.

The primary amendment Connerly proposes would "bar government from treating people differently based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public education, employment, or contracting."

Ervin argued that the title language is clear and that it would add protections against reverse discrimination to the state constitution. "I do not understand the contention that this amendment is somehow misleading," he told the court.

Outside the Supreme Court building after the arguments, Florida NAACP President Adora Obi Nweze said the governor, too, is misrepresenting his One Florida plan. "There is no difference here," she said. "You're going to be dead with either one. We don't want the people of Florida to be mislead anymore."

Bush calls One Florida a "third way" to approach affirmative action, ending strict race and gender policies but actively reaching out to minorities. But Bush failed to drive Connerly away. Only the court appears to have the power to do that.

The arguments before the Supreme Court brought together a high profile and somewhat unlikely alliance of attorneys.

The lead opposition lawyer, Joseph Hatchett, is the first black justice to serve on the Florida Supreme Court. He left the court in 1979 to become a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and retired into private practice last year. He represents FREE, a coalition of civil rights groups leading a drive for a constitutional amendment in support of affirmative action.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth opened the arguments on behalf of opponents. Butterworth, a Democrat, argued that the Connerly amendments violated strict legal requirements that constitutional amendments must deal with a single subject and be written in "clear and unambiguous language."

"If the court follows its own precedent, the only result can be that all four ballot measures are fatally flawed," he said after the hearing. "A ballot initiative has to be more like a rifle bullet than a shotgun."

Matthew D. Slater, representing the university Board of Regents, told justices the Connerly amendments were "misleading the voters."

Regents and the NAACP are united against Connerly. But the NAACP has filed a legal petition challenging the authority of regents and the state Board of Education to adopt the educational portion of the Bush plan.

More than two hundred African American ministers and protesters held a candlelight prayer vigil across from the Governor's Mansion Monday evening. Eyes closed, the makeshift congregation sang and prayed.

Bush, attending a traditional pre-session Red Mass at a Catholic cathedral, did not appear.

But the Rev. Jesse Jackson did, arriving late.

Jackson, who will address marchers today, said he declined a recent invitation to meet with Bush because the governor was not open-minded. "If you want reconciliation with the offended, the damaged and the hurt," he said, "you make up a plan with the offended, the damaged and the hurt."

On Friday, Bush sent a letter to march leaders, including Jackson and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, offering to meet in person or by phone last weekend or during their visit to Tallahassee.

"We not have heard from any of them. Totally no response," said Bush communications director Justin Sayfie. "We still may hear from them." After this morning, however, Sayfie said "we just can't do it because the schedule's too tight."

To counter what it sees as negative and misleading media coverage of Bush and One Florida, the state Republican party launched an advertising campaign directed at minorities. The ads are running on black-oriented radio stations, in Capitol Outlook, an African American newspaper in Tallahassee, and in the Miami Times.

Party chairman Al Cardenas said a new GOP poll shows Bush's approval rating has improved from 61 percent to 63 percent in the past year, despite a backlash against One Florida. Cardenas said the party wants to use the march to reach out to minority voters.

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