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Florida Supreme Court Upholds Speedy Death Penalty Law

On June 12, 2014, the Supreme Court of Florida held for the state in a constitutional challenge of the state's Timely Justice Act (the Act) of 2013, weighed by death row prisoners. Seeking to expand
Allen v. Butterworth, 756 So. 2d 52 (Fla. 2000), a successful attack on the current Death Penalty Reform Act, petitioner Dane P. Abdool, for himself and other like-suited prisoners, advanced exception to four sections of the Act. The legislative intent of the Act was to “...reduce delays in capital cases and to ensure that all appeals and post-conviction actions in capital cases are resolved as soon as possible after the date a sentence of death is imposed in the circuit court.” The Florida Supreme Court construed the challenge as against the face of the statute, not specific to a set of circumstances, and considered only the text of the statute in its analysis.

Most contested was the modification to Florida Statute §922.052. The petitioners alleged that §922.052 directly intruded upon the Separation of Powers Clause by circumventing the authority of the courts by setting time frames for various court actions. The Florida Supreme Court, in its analysis, pointed out that §922.052 addresses matters relating to the issuance of a warrant for execution, an executive function, and does not restrict procedural mechanisms inherent in the judicial process. The plain text of the statute mandates that post-conviction proceedings and the executive clemency process both be completed before the issuance of a warrant of execution.

Petitioners also alleged that the legislative mandate pertaining to the role of the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court in certifying to the governor status information relevant to a prisoner's case as a step in furtherance of the process was in contradiction to the Separation of Powers Clause by infringing on the Court's lawful responsibility to oversee the functions of the clerk. The court noted several instances of limited information collecting and sharing legislatively mandated of the Supreme Court clerk, saying there was no reading of the contested law that prohibits legislature from directing the clerk to collect information for the benefit of other branches of government.

Seen from the opposite end of the spectrum, the petitioners claimed as a Separation of Powers issue that the Act empowers the governor to oversee and direct the clerk by permitting the governor to sign a warrant after determining the clerk has not complied with the certification process. The court pointed out that the Act does not provide the governor with a mechanism with which to challenge the clerk's certification or to direct the clerk to a complete certification.

Last, as a Separation of Powers issue, petitioners claimed the warrant issuance provision of the Act unconstitutionally infringed on the governor's clemency power and, conversely, unfettered discretion to issue a warrant by mandating a warrant be issued once the Supreme Court clerk issues a certification of completed post-conviction action. The court noted the clemency process obviated that claim.

The remaining §922.052 issues dealt with due process, equal protection, and Eighth Amendment claims – Due Process by restricting successive post-conviction proceedings, and creating a timeline for execution, equal protection by affording non-capital defendants none of the time limits imposed on capital defendants, and Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishment by timelining execution. The court reiterated analysis covered in the Separation of Powers arguments with respect to the Due Process and Equal Protection claims and read from the law to determine that the Act governs administrative process, not punishment.

Petitioners' challenge to section 27.7045, Constitutionally Deficient Representation, alleged the Act's unconstitutional encroachment on the court's exclusive jurisdiction to “regulate the admission of persons to the practice of law and the discipline of persons admitted,” per Florida Constitution. Petitioners' charge, however, failed to differentiate between the four classes of non-paid attorneys available to criminal defendants, only one of which was elected. The public defender determines the qualifications of his assistants apart from legislative overview, while the Supreme Court retains exclusive constitutional authority to regulate the admission and disciplinary strictures of those practicing law. The other three classes of defense counsel, those answerable to 27.2045, are the Court Appointed Registry Counsel, the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, and the Civil Regional Counsel, all three of which are legislatively borne entities and answerable to legislative modification of their charter independent of the Supreme Court.

Petitioners further contended that the Act caused section 27.7081 to displace Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.852, Capital Post-Conviction Public Records Production, further encroaching on the court's authority, to adopt ruled of practice and procedure. The court quoted the Criminal Justice Subcommittee of the House of Representative of Florida in their analysis of this portion of the Act, saying “The portions of the rule that are procedural in nature are not codified in S. 27.7081, F.S.,” and held that the amended statute is consistent with rule 3.852 and the omitted time provisions of 27.7081 to be within the purview of rule 3.852.

The final issue put forth by petitioners alleged the Act violated the Separation of Powers clause of the Florida Constitution by requiring a Capital Collateral Regional Counsel attorney to disclose confidential information about a client to qualify a conflict of interest claim and designate different counsel. The court noted that the rule regulating confidentiality between client and attorney pertains to information about a client's case, not the name, and that generalities about the conflict and the name are sufficient to satisfy the provisions of the Act.

The Supreme Court of Florida held in all points for the State. See: Abdool v. Bondi, 141 So. 3d 529 (Fla. 2014).

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Related legal case

Abdool v. Bondi