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Let FL Voters Speak, State Argues

Let FL Voters Speak, State Argues

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By Jim Saunders
Health News Florida

An attorney for the state asked the Florida Supreme Court today to salvage a proposed constitutional amendment that takes aim at a key part of the new federal health-reform law. His argument? Simply get rid of ballot wording that could mislead voters — and keep the meat of the proposal.

Russell Kent, special counsel to Attorney General Bill McCollum, said the move would preserve the Legislature’s desire to give voters a chance to cast ballots on the health-care issue during the November election. “We are asking the court to respect, not assume, the role of the Legislature,” Kent told the justices.

The state appealed a circuit-court ruling last month that tossed the proposal off the November ballot. Leon County Circuit Judge James O. Shelfer said lawmakers included “manifestly misleading” wording in a ballot summary that voters would see when they go to the polls. The proposal, known as Amendment 9, would try to prevent Floridians from being forced by law to “participate in any health-care system.” It is aimed at allowing people to opt out of a new federal requirement that they eventually buy health insurance or face financial penalties. The disputed summary wording says the amendment would “ensure access to health-care services without waiting lists, protect the doctor-patient relationship (and) guard against mandates that don’t work.” Shelfer said those broad claims are not backed up in the actual text of the amendment.

In the Supreme Court, Kent did not defend the disputed wording. Instead, he asked justices to eliminate the summary and put the full text of the amendment on the ballot. But Gary Early, an attorney for four voters who filed the lawsuit, contended the Supreme Court would be overstepping its authority if it revised the ballot wording passed by the Legislature. Justice Peggy Quince also questioned Kent about whether the court could step in and erase part of the legislation. “Now you’re asking us to say, ‘No, that’s not what the Legislature really meant,’ ” Quince said. But Chief Justice Charles Canady pointed to a 2004 Supreme Court court decision that removed a ballot summary and allowed the full text of an amendment to go on the ballot. That case involved a constitutional amendment dealing with parental notification of abortion. Canady also indicated he thinks lawmakers “without a shadow of a doubt” wanted to give residents a chance to vote this November on the health-care issues. 

It is unclear how quickly the Supreme Court will rule in the case. But time is running short: Elections supervisors will start printing ballots after the primary-election results are formally certified Sept. 2. The Republican-dominated Legislature this spring approved placing the amendment on the ballot after a series of noisy debates about the federal health-reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Other states also have launched attacks on the law, which President Obama signed in March. Missouri voters, for example, approved a ballot proposal this month that is similar to Florida’s Amendment 9.

But even if Amendment 9 is ultimately passed by voters, critics argue it will not exempt Floridians from the law’s “individual mandate,” which will require insurance coverage starting in 2014. They say the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution bars Florida from choosing to opt out of the federal law. Prominent Democratic attorney Mark Herron filed the ballot-wording lawsuit on behalf of Pinellas County resident Mona Mangat, Orange County resident Gracie Fowler and Palm Beach County residents Diana Demerest and Louisa McQueeney. In a Supreme Court brief , Herron and Early, who are law partners, contended the disputed wording could have been added to entice lawmakers to vote for the proposed constitutional amendment.  As a result, the brief said there is no guarantee lawmakers would have even placed the proposed amendment on the ballot without the misleading phrases. But the attorneys for the state said eliminating the summary and placing the full text of the amendment on the ballot would be an appropriate way to let voters decide the issue. “The voters would still be voting on a proposed constitutional amendment based only on the words chosen by the Legislature,” a state brief said.

Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Tom Tillison

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