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In shadow of jailhouse, some unity breaks out


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001

We could be in for even more than the usual amount of entertainment. Imagine a legislative session with House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay behind bars.

We could be in for even more than the usual amount of entertainment. Imagine a legislative session with House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay behind bars.

If you haven't been paying attention the past few days, you may not know that Circuit Judge L. Ralph "Bubba" Smith of Tallahassee has ordered McKay, Feeney and two other legislators into his courtroom on contempt charges. Feeney and McKay say they were well within their constitutional right to act independently of other branches of government when they defied the judge's order and had a joint committee meeting last week.

They've hired attorney Barry Richard, of election recount fame, to represent them.

Feeney says he's packed his toothbrush and he's ready to go. But no one expects they will actually go to jail.

As one who has a little experience with this sort of contemptuous conduct, let me explain.

Technically speaking, the judge could sentence them to six months in jail -- if they can't get a higher court to overrule his order.

But there is honor in going to jail to defend a constitutional privilege.

In 1973 a judge in Pasco County sentenced me to eight months in jail for refusing to divulge the name of a source. We fought the sentence to the Florida Supreme Court, which granted reporters a limited right to protect sources as it ruled in my favor.

I never served a day behind bars but was instead released on bail where I remained for three years.

It is not fun. Feeney and McKay will hear a lot of jailbird jokes.

But they will find the average Floridian will understand the constitutional premise at work in this fight. Oddly enough, a majority of Floridians probably couldn't tell you the names of their legislative leaders, but they probably know about separation of powers.

In my case dozens of Floridians baked loaves of bread and cakes for me with files in the middle -- just in case I needed to break out of a cell. Hundreds called and wrote me letters of support.

There is no dishonor in being sentenced to jail for defending a constitutional right. Besides, there are days when a jail cell would seem positively appetizing instead of endless days in a legislative session.

Perhaps I could go to jail in their place.

Feeney has spent a lot of time studying the history books. He notes that the separation of powers doctrine dates back to the 1500s in England when a member of the House of Commons was imprisoned by a court for pursuing a bill to regulate tin mining.

Parliament released him, and it has been ever thus.

Feeney does note there are some old precedents he doesn't like.

"Let's hope I'm not like King Charles I; he got beheaded," Feeney joked last week. But the king was on the other side of this fight.

Oddly enough, the court order has done something nothing else seemed to do: made McKay and Feeney much closer. Until this week the two legislative leaders appeared to be going in vastly different directions.

The rhetoric was everywhere. The budget, nowhere. The House wants tax cuts. The Senate doesn't. They are light years apart in spending and income. Everyone is talking about overtime for the legislative session.

McKay says he doesn't have a golf date until August, and Feeney says he feels no pressure to end on time.

Those on-time endings were something Republicans needed to do in 1996 when everyone predicted that the world would end with the GOP in charge, says Feeney.

Now they have proved they can end sessions on time and could afford to go into overtime, he insists.

And Judge Smith has given them unity.

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