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Lawmakers build larger war chests for legal battles

State GOP officials are increasingly turning to high-priced private attorneys to defend policy and new laws.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-controlled Legislature have set aside more than $1.5-million to defend their policies ranging from school vouchers to a "Choose Life" license tag.

At least six controversial measures Bush and the Legislature approved in 15 months are being challenged in court, mostly on grounds they are unconstitutional.

Last year, before Bush's plan to allow public school students to attend private schools with state money became law, lawmakers budgeted $500,000 to defend against challenges. Legislators added another $500,000 this year, although only about $32,000 has been spent.

Critics say Bush is deliberately dismissing the Constitution.

"I think he (Bush) set out to push the envelope on the Constitution. Otherwise, why would you be preparing for litigation?" said Dexter Douglass, former general counsel to Democrat Gov. Lawton Chiles and one of the lead attorneys attacking the voucher plan.

The governor jokes that he expects to be sued when he rolls out initiatives because his opponents have no other option. Bush communications director Justin Sayfie said that by pushing those measures, the governor and lawmakers are simply fulfilling campaign promises. "It's not surprising to see the political opponents of some of these initiatives attempting to win in the courtroom when they could not win at the ballot box," Sayfie said.

Opponents may lack the votes or influence to prevent lawmakers from adopting controversial policies, but their attorneys have been persuasive in the courtroom. The courts have struck down many initiatives, although the rulings are being appealed.

A circuit court judge ruled vouchers violate the state Constitution. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a legislative attempt to streamline the appeals process of death row inmates is unconstitutional. A plan to sell state license tags bearing the message "Choose Life" also has been stopped.

On Friday, a Tallahassee judge ruled that a 1999 law requiring parental notification before a minor can obtain an abortion violates constitutional rights to privacy.

Government attorneys are defending most of the cases, but they often are joined by private attorneys paid with state money, public records show:

Earlier this week, Bush and the state Cabinet transferred $300,000 to the Board of Regents to pay private attorneys to defend Bush's One Florida plan to overhaul affirmative action admissions policies in state universities.

The state has spent $32,000 in private legal fees to defend vouchers. Nearly $1-million more is available as the case goes through appeals.

The state paid private attorneys $130,000 to defend the parental notification law and $43,480 to defend the "Choose Life" tag.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth said his office is singlehandedly defending a law passed last year that limits monetary damages companies must pay in negligence suits. Butterworth, the state's top elected Democrat, has long sought to keep state legal battles under his control.

"The state spends too much money, far too much money for outside lawyers," Butterworth said Friday. "I don't agree with everything that the Legislature does, but I believe I have a duty to defend the laws of the Legislature. That's my job."

Butterworth said his role as a Cabinet member has forced him to make exceptions to his personal policy. He spoke out forcefully against the approval of the "Choose Life" plate, and he opposed implementing the One Florida admissions policies this year.

The Board of Regents hired its own attorneys to defend One Florida, but Butterworth said that was their choice, not his.

Brian Ballard, a lobbyist and former chief of staff for Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, said the Martinez administration hired private attorneys only rarely.

Under Chiles, a "dream team" of private attorneys won the multibillion tobacco settlement, but they were paid their millions out of the damages awarded.

Ballard said the Bush administration may lean toward private attorneys because, with more money in state coffers, the governor can afford it. "It's a tough policy to stop once it starts," he said.

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