Law: Reversing Course
The new Florida Supreme Court
Days after the Chiles justices left the bench, Nationstar asked for a rehearing. The new court granted it — and ultimately undid the ruling. In a 6-1 decision issued in April, the new Supreme Court announced it shouldn’t have accepted the case in the first place, withdrew the January opinion and allowed the 4th DCA’s decision — which sided with Nationstar — to stand.
Miami Beach v. Florida Retail Federation
The case pitted the city of Miami Beach against one of the state’s biggest business lobbying groups. In 2016, the city, led at the time by a Democratic mayor, Philip Levine, planning a run for governor, enacted an ordinance to require businesses operating within its limits to pay a minimum wage of $13.31 — a more than $5 increase over the statewide minimum wage. Miami Beach’s living wage ordinance was in clear defiance of a 2003 law passed by the Legislature, in response to business lobbying, that explicitly prohibited cities and counties from setting their own minimum wages. The Florida Retail Federation, whose members include Publix, Walmart and Walgreens, sued to have the ordinance thrown out.
Lower courts sided with the Retail Federation, but Miami Beach appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. And by a 4-3 vote — with all three of the Chiles justices in the majority — the court agreed to hear the case. That set the stage for a high-stakes ruling about the Florida Legislature’s power to limit local government wage laws.
But in early February — two weeks after DeSantis made the last of his three appointments and one month before the court was to hear oral arguments — the court, by a 5-2 vote, decided not to hear the case. The move effectively upheld the lower appellate court’s ruling, tossing Miami Beach’s living wage and affirming the Legislature’s preemption power.
Orange County v. Singh
This case was another test of the Legislature’s power to pre-empt local governments. It involved a battle between elected officials in Orange County, which includes Orlando and has transformed in recent years from a Republican-leaning swing region to a Democratic stronghold. In 2014, the county commission — controlled at the time by Republicans — put a charter amendment on the ballot making changes to the county’s constitutional offices, which, after the 2012 elections, were all held by Democrats.
The proposal imposed term limits, which are usually popular with voters, and made the offices non-partisan. Removing the Democratic and Republican identifiers from the ballot would have helped GOP candidates in a Democratic-leaning county. Voters approved the amendment. But the constitutional officers sued — including Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh — arguing that Florida law prohibited counties from making the races non-partisan.
The previous court, led by the Chiles appointees, disagreed, ruling 4-3 that Orange County had the home-rule authority to make the offices non-partisan. But three months later, the new court ruled 6-1 that the Legislature had reserved that power to itself and said that the county’s constitutional offices must continue to run in partisan elections.
The Orange County demonstrated — like judges across the political spectrum often say — that judicial philosophy trumps political result. In this case, justices appointed by a Democratic governor ruled in a way that would have benefited Republicans while justices appointed by Republicans came down on the side that ultimately helped Democrats.
Amendments to the Florida Evidence Code
In 2013 — after years of lobbying by businesses and intense opposition from plaintiffs attorneys — the Florida Legislature adopted stricter standards for expert witnesses. The new rules, known by legal shorthand as the Daubert standard, replaced the longstanding and more lenient Frye standard. The Daubert standard was already in use in many other states and the federal courts, where it often has the effect of helping businesses and other defendants in civil lawsuits to get expert witness testimony excluded from their trials.
The previous iteration of the Florida Supreme Court, which was often regarded as sympathetic to negligence victims and plaintiffs attorneys, refused to implement the standard, however.
In a pair of rulings issued in 2017 and 2018, the court said that the Legislature had infringed upon the court’s rule-making authority by trying to impose the Daubert standard.
In May, the new court reversed those decisions and adopted the more restrictive Daubert standard. In its 5-2 ruling, the court said the constitutional concerns cited in the previous court’s opinions “appear unfounded.”
The opinion was also a clear window into how it thinks about civil litigation. “The Daubert amendments,” the court wrote in a joint opinion, “will create consistency between the state and federal courts with respect to the admissibility of expert testimony and will promote fairness and predictability in the legal system, as well as help lessen forum shopping.”
Read more in Florida Trend's July issue.
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