Taxpayers pay for challenges to new laws

TALLAHASSEE — In 2011, the Florida Legislature, hailed as the most conservative in decades, passed a string of controversial bills, including a rewrite of the state’s elections law, privatization of more than two dozen prisons and a revamp of public employees’ pensions.

Within weeks after the bills were signed by Gov. Rick Scott, four court challenges were filed by groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the unions representing prison guards and teachers to Florida’s pediatricians. And in Washington, the state and the U.S. Department of Justice squared off over the elections-law changes.

The cost to Florida taxpayers so far: $728,840.

What’s more, all four lawsuits won before a trial judge, setting the stage for expensive appeals.

“The Legislature seems very willing just to proceed irrespective of constitutional issues being posed and raised,” said Ron Meyer, the FEA attorney who filed three of the suits. “They just don’t seem to care.”

“I think unfortunately you have a number of people in the legislature that seem to disregard the constitution,” said Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie, who is currently running for Broward County Commission. “They seem to disregard existing law. And they pass laws that are blatantly unconstitutional. They do that because of their political beliefs, and I think that is a disservice to our state. At the same time, we are spending hundreds and hundreds of taxpayer dollars to defend these laws.”

Counters Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park: “The House is not going to back away from pursuing sound public policy because special-interest groups threaten to use the courts to circumvent their failures in the democratic process.”

A spokeswoman for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, made similar comments.

“This Senate has passed historic reforms in the last two years — be it in our education, pension or Medicaid systems — and when major reforms are passed, special-interest groups circle the wagons and litigate the issue in an attempt to protect their own interests and maintain the status quo,” said Lyndsey Cruley.

Legal challenges to new laws aren’t unusual. Former Gov. Jeb Bush tangled with the teachers’ union over his voucher program; Gov. Charlie Crist was sued by the Legislature — successfully — over a gambling compact he negotiated with the Seminole Tribe. And in 2010, several lawsuits overturned proposed constitutional amendments the Legislature wanted on the ballot.

But the 2011 session brought a bumper crop. Besides the elections-law rewrite, pension changes and prison privatization, lawmakers also required drug tests of welfare recipients and restricted what physicians could ask patients about gun ownership. All were promptly challenged.

To defend the laws, state officials turned to law firms in Atlanta and Washington, as well as their own legal staffs. It has not come cheaply: The pension case alone has generated billings of $484,672 thus far by the Atlanta firm of Alston Bird, which was paid $495 per hour.

To defend the election law, which cut down on the number of days for early voting and imposed new restrictions on voter-registration groups, the Department of State has paid $144,971 to a Washington firm.

Generally, the Attorney General’s Office represents state agencies that are sued. But if an agency asks to hire a private law firm, the office has 10 days to determine whether it has the resources and expertise to handle the matter or whether it should be contracted out.

Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Department of State, said it made sense for the state to hire Washington lawyers after it asked a panel of federal judges to review the new election law. Because Florida falls under the anti-discrimination Voting Rights Act, any changes in election law must be “pre-cleared” by either a judicial panel or the Justice Department, which is now contesting the state’s request for approval.

“By hiring outside counsel with substantial knowledge and expertise in this area, the Department of State has been able to more effectively prepare its case for submission to the court,” Cate said.

Other cases from the 2011 session:

When Scott signed a bill requiring applicants for welfare to pass a drug test, the American Civil Liberties Union sued almost immediately. The law, a campaign pledge of Scott’s, was struck down by a federal judge in October and is now on appeal. Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office handled the case, but travel, filing fees and other expenses have added up to $36,680.71 so far.

One of the Senate’s top priorities was to hand over 29 prisons and work camps in South Florida to private companies. The Police Benevolent Association sued, arguing that lawmakers had violated state law by including the privatization language in the budget instead of passing a separate bill. A Leon County judge agreed. The case is now on appeal and being handled by Bondi’s office. The cost thus far: $21,505.88.

A federal judge in Miami blocked the so-called “Docs and Glocks” law requiring that doctors and other health-care providers refrain from asking about gun ownership unless they think it is relevant to patient care. The Florida chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Academy of Family Physicians and American College of Physicians, along with the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, sued. Bondi’s office is appealing. The cost thus far: $29,290.37.