|Florida's death chamber|
TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court went on summer vacation Thursday and put on ice rulings resolving two of the most controversial issues to come before the court this year: the death penalty and expansion of slot machines.
The court issued its final rulings for its 2015-16 term, which ended June 30, including a clarification of its decision overturning the state’s workers compensation law, but it left unresolved the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty and the question of whether a 2010 state gaming law allows counties to expand slot machines without legislative approval.
Both decisions could have wide-ranging ramifications, potentially leaving the state’s death penalty sentencing procedure and its gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe in limbo for several more months until the court resumes rulings at the end of August. Whatever the court rules, the decisions on the two emotionally charged issues may also provoke criticism, controversy and unleash an election-year debate.
Three of the seven justices are themselves on the November ballot. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston face up or down merit-retention votes.
They may or may not rule before then on the fate of a new death penalty law, which opponents say is unconstitutional. Florida legislators passed the law in March in response to a federal decision outlawing Florida’s death penalty scheme in January.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that the state’s death sentencing procedure was unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, Florida jurors issued simple majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty.
In response to the Hurst ruling, the Florida court stayed two executions, heard arguments in more than a dozen death penalty cases, and was widely expected to answer whether longtime Death Row inmates should be afforded new sentencing hearings. There are 338 inmates on Death Row.
The decision also forced the Legislature to rewrite its death-penalty sentencing law to require juries to unanimously vote for all reasons, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. The new law says that the decision to impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors to agree.
The Hurst ruling evolved from a similar ruling in a 2002 case, Ring v. Arizona, which held that juries in that state should have the sole authority to decide on aggravating circumstances that made someone eligible for the death penalty. Alabama, Florida and Delaware are the only three states that do not require a unanimous jury to impose the death sentence, and Florida officials said the jury’s “advisory” role was sufficiently different to allow the court to differentiate Florida from the Arizona ruling.
But questions remain.
Martin McClain, a lawyer who has represented more than 250 defendants condemned to death and who presented arguments before the court in June, noted that there are two people on Death Row whose juries recommended a life sentence but a judge overrode it with a death sentence.
Source: Miami Herald, July 7, 2016