Attorneys for a group of Florida’s death row inmates have filed a challenge to the newly passed Timely Justice Act, which would speed executions in Florida. (Yours truly has not yet been able to blog about the law at this point, but you can find a wealth of articles about it, like this one from Slate and this one from The Miami Herald.)
By Dara Kam
Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Attorneys representing Death Row inmates have filed a challenge to a law aimed at speeding up executions, saying the “Timely Justice Act” is an unconstitutional power grab by the Legislature and violates convicts’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday with the Florida Supreme Court is led by two lawyers — Neal Dupree, capital collateral regional counsel south; and Bill Jennings, capital collateral regional counsel middle. They lead the state agencies that represent Death Row inmates in postconviction proceedings in their respective Florida districts.
Dozens of lawyers and more than 150 inmates awaiting execution joined the suit against Attorney General Pam Bondi and the state of Florida.
The suit was filed less than two weeks after Gov. Rick Scott signed the measure into law. “We will defend it,” Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an email.
Scott’s office has launched a public-relations campaign disputing reports that the new law abbreviates judicial rights, insisting instead that the law “makes technical amendments to current law and provides clarity and transparency to legal proceedings.”
Florida has 405 inmates on Death Row. The average length of time between conviction and execution is more than two decades.
The new law, which takes effect July 1, requires the Florida Supreme Court to certify to the governor when a Death Row inmate’s appeals have been exhausted. The governor will have 30 days to sign a death warrant once the capital clemency process is complete.
The law also creates time limits for production of public records in postconviction cases and imposes penalties on defense lawyers deemed ineffective.
Dupree and Jennings asked the Florida Supreme Court to issue an emergency injunction blocking the law, warning it will create a “flood of death warrants that will inundate the courts” and diminish the court’s review of capital cases. They also requested that the court hear oral arguments in the case.
If the law is not halted, “the process will have the unconstitutional and irreversible result of individuals being executed under a legislatively determined judicial procedure in which violations of their constitutional rights go unresolved,” the lawyers wrote in an 89-page filing. “Further, Florida history shows that diminished process can have tragic and irreversible consequences.”
The request for an injunction also includes a lengthy examination of efforts by the Supreme Court, the Legislature and previous governors to come up a more expedited yet fair death penalty procedure.
That process “cannot and should not be displaced by a lawmaking process based on political, rather than constitutional and equitable, concerns,” wrote Dupree and Jennings, joined by Martin McClain, who has represented numerous Death Row inmates, including some who have been exonerated.
The lawyers rely on many of the same arguments used by the Supreme Court when it struck down the 2000 Death Penalty Reform Act, the Legislature’s last attempt to speed up executions. The 200 law imposed time limits on appeals and created a two-tiered system for direct appeals and collateral proceedings.
In much the same way, the new law imposes time lines for appeals, thereby taking away the court’s power to establish its own rules, the lawyers argued.
Among the top concerns with the new law are limits on appeals that can be made once a warrant is signed. Only 19 of the 75 prisoners executed in Florida since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 were put to death after their first warrant, the lawyers wrote.
According to Scott’s office, 13 Death Row inmates would fit the criteria under the new law to have a death warrant signed.
The lawsuit is a rehashing of the “same spurious arguments that have turned our death penalty into a mockery in Florida,” said state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the bill’s sponsor.
“Their stated role is to not have anyone executed on their watch. They oppose the death penalty in every case and use all legal filings necessary to delay the inevitable. And that’s exactly what this legislation was designed to put a stop to,” he said.
Negron said he is confident the court will uphold the law.
But lawyers for the condemned argued in the brief that the new process lacks an understanding of the complexities of the process and imposes restrictions on federal appeals.
The Legislature “has made profoundly critical decisions determining what judicial vehicles are available to capital defendants prior to the State taking the ultimate punitive act of terminating their lives, yet it seems the Legislature does not have an understanding of those vehicles and their names. Unless, that is, we must presume that the Legislature intended to cut off U.S. Supreme Court review of Florida death cases, which would present concerns of federalism, constitutionality and fairness beyond those addressed herein,” the lawyers wrote.