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State Appeals After Judge Blocks Ballot Measures

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Julio Ochoa
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office has quickly appealed a circuit judge’s ruling that would block three proposed constitutional amendments from going on the November ballot -- including a measure aimed at banning offshore oil drilling and vaping in workplaces.

After hearing arguments Wednesday, Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers issued a seven-page order saying the proposed constitutional amendments improperly “bundled” unrelated issues. Gievers sided with a challenge filed by two plaintiffs, including former Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead, who contend the proposed amendments would violate voters’ First Amendment rights.

But Bondi’s office Thursday filed a notice of appeal at the 1st District Court of Appeal, according to documents posted online Friday. The notice also said the appeal triggers an automatic stay of Gievers’ ruling.

Anstead and fellow plaintiff Robert J. Barnas filed the challenge last month against six proposed amendments placed on the Nov. 6 ballot by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission. Gievers, however, focused on three of the measures because the other three are the subjects of separate challenges at the Supreme Court.

The challenge contends, in part, that bundling seemingly unrelated issues in single constitutional amendments violates the rights of voters, who could have conflicting views on the issues. For example, a voter could support a constitutional change to ban offshore oil drilling but oppose a ban on vaping or using electronic cigarettes in workplaces.

Gievers agreed with the arguments on each of the three amendments, including the measure known as Amendment 9 that would ban drilling and workplace vaping.

“The court is unconvinced by the respondent’s (state’s) argument that offshore oil and gas drilling and vaping are germane as they are both environmentally related,” she wrote. “These measures are independent and unrelated and do not constitute a comprehensive plan of revision and cannot be imposed upon the voters as a unit. Voters cannot reasonably answer the statutorily required yes or no question … without potentially being deprived of their First Amendment constitutional right to cast a meaningful vote on each independent and unrelated proposal.”

During arguments Wednesday before Gievers, however, state Deputy Solicitor General Jordan Pratt said the Constitution Revision Commission has the authority to combine multiple constitutional changes in single ballot measures. The 37-member commission meets every 20 years and has unique power to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Pratt also said the plaintiffs offered an “unprecedented” legal theory that the First Amendment does not allow the bundling of proposed amendments.

Pratt said there is “no case in the history of the republic, federal or state, that has ever read the First Amendment to guarantee a right to voters not to vote on bundled proposals.”

Along with the proposal on drilling and vaping, Gievers also struck from the ballot a measure, known as Amendment 7, that deals with governance of the state-college system and death benefits for survivors of first responders and military members. Also, she struck a measure, known as Amendment 11, that would remove constitutional language that prohibits “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning property and would revise language to make clear the repeal of criminal statutes does not affect the prosecution of crimes committed before the repeal.

Gievers’ ruling came as the Supreme Court considers a series of challenges seeking to block other proposed amendments from going on the ballot. Justices this week, for instance, heard arguments about a controversial education amendment and a measure designed to expand crime victims’ rights.

In all, Floridians could vote on 13 amendments in November because of decisions by the Constitution Revision Commission and the Legislature and petition drives. It remained unclear Friday morning when the Supreme Court would rule on the cases it is considering.