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Court bars affirmative action from 2000 ballot

The state Supreme Court says proposals to end the policy could mislead voters. Ward Connerly calls the ruling "a blow against self-government."

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- In sometimes forceful and critical language, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that proposals to end affirmative action in Florida are too broad and misleading to go before voters in November.

The ruling follows 18 months of controversy and turmoil over how Florida should address such thorny issues as race-based preferences, diversity and reverse discrimination. It also puts off until at least 2002 the push by California businessman Ward Connerly to end affirmative action policies in state and local government in Florida.

The Supreme Court said Thursday that four proposed constitutional amendments to end affirmative action were written so broadly that voters could unknowingly send Florida down a path of "cataclysmic change."

For example, the Legislature would be prohibited from adopting programs or funding scholarships specifically designed for minorities, and the state's courts would be "closed, not open, to victims of discrimination who seek redress," the justices wrote.

"Limiting legislative authority and redefining courts' remedial powers significantly restricts the state's ability to address the effects of past and present discriminatory practices," the court said.

In a separate opinion, Justice Leander Shaw used even stronger language, saying the amendments were so vague that they gave voters "no clue" of their impact on government programs to combat discrimination.

"A constitutional referendum is not a high stakes poker game where voters must guess the sponsors' hand by discounting the hype and spin and calculating the odds themselves," Shaw wrote. "Whenever constitutional rights are at issue, accuracy and truthfulness are the hallmarks. The sponsors of an amendment must place all the cards on the table, face up, prior to an election. Each voter is entitled to cast a ballot based on the full truth."

In a written statement, Connerly harshly criticized the court's decision as "a blow against our tradition of self-government."

"I am outraged, as should be the people of Florida, by the deprivation of their right to decide on the limits of affirmative action," Connerly said. "This ballot review process has been a disgraceful display by an overreaching court that aggressively quashed a clear and simple proposition to end preferences."

His supporters in Florida said they are disappointed but not deterred.

"We will redraft the language, we will resubmit to voters, we will resubmit to the court," said Herb Harmon, a leader in a group called Florida Civil Rights Initiative that was working with Connerly.

The Florida Supreme Court reviews all citizen initiatives to make sure they are clear to voters. The initiatives must deal with just a single subject and the ballot titles and summaries must clearly explain the proposal.

Harmon called Thursday's ruling a "non-opinion," because only three justices supported the actual wording: Major Harding, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince. The four other justices -- Chief Justice Charles Wells, Leander Shaw, Harry Lee Anstead and R. Fred Lewis -- concurred in the result only.

Attorney Mark Herron, representing a coalition of civil rights and women's groups opposed to the amendments, said all seven justices still agreed that the proposals should not be on the ballot. "The result of the case is, it's over," Herron said.

Gov. Jeb Bush applauded the ruling, calling it "a good thing for our state." Rather than a divisive ballot initiative, Bush said, "It is appropriate to deal with this issue as we've done it."

As an alternative to Connerly's plan, Bush last fall put forth an alternative: a One Florida plan to end race and gender preferences in university admissions and state contracting decisions. That plan includes guaranteeing state university admission to the top 20 percent of each high school class. Earlier this week, an administrative hearing judge rejected the state NAACP's challenge to that "Talented 20" plan.

But Bush's solution also has been controversial. In January, two black lawmakers staged a 25-hour sit in in the office of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, and in March, thousands of people marched on the capital to protest One Florida.

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