Monday, October 28, 2002
Death penalty: U.S. justices, not Florida, must resolve conflict
No matter how Floridians feel about the death penalty, they should be sickened to see it used as a political bargaining chip.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what they are seeing. Thursday's state Supreme Court ruling -- in which Florida's death penalty law was unanimously but very reluctantly upheld -- only serves to drive that home.
Florida voters will be asked Nov. 5 to approve an amendment that purports to "protect" the death penalty. That's a brutal lie. The final fate of Florida's 369 death row inmates will be decided far from Tallahassee, and Thursday's opinion strips away the final shreds of deceit.
Five of Florida's seven Supreme Court justices made it clear they had grave concerns about whether Florida's death penalty statutes violate fundamental provisions of the U.S. Constitution. But all seven agreed they lack the authority to resolve the conflict themselves.
Florida's death penalty is caught between warring opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this year, the federal court issued a stunning ruling that threw out Arizona's death penalty, saying that juries, not judges, must have the final say before a defendant is sentenced to death.
The Florida law isn't identical to Arizona's, but it's very close. State justices were troubled by the federal court's failure to explain the conflict between the Arizona ruling and earlier decisions that upheld Florida's death penalty -- even when the sentencing judge overruled a jury recommendation of life in prison. Attorneys have already said they will appeal Thursday's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, putting the question right back where it started -- and where it should have been resolved in the first place.
The death penalty is morally wrong, and now it's on shaky legal ground too. Yet the Florida Supreme Court showed appropriate restraint in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court created this problem, and that's where it must be solved.
Don't expect Florida's highest elected officials to give the state court credit, however. For the past two years, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature have been on a jihad to strip state courts of as much independence as possible.
That crusade will reach its peak on Election Day, with Proposed Constitutional Amendment 1, a trick on voters who might think they're voting to save the death penalty. Confusion is understandable. The question on the ballot is 10 times longer than normally allowed, and almost impossible for a layman to understand.
Buried under all the verbiage is an attempt to handcuff the state courts in their ability to interpret state criminal law. That crippling effect would extend to all Florida criminal laws, not just the death-penalty statute. The net effect would be to hand off more control over crime and punishment in Florida to the federal government.
This amendment could possibly be justified if Florida's courts had a history of runaway recklessness -- and if the lawmakers who put it on the ballot were honest with voters about what it would do.
But neither condition has been met. As disappointing as it was to death-penalty opponents, the Florida Supreme Court's decision proves that the high court is most concerned about the careful administration of justice. The court clearly knows when to defer to federal authority. Florida's voters must not throw away the state courts' ability to protect their rights when it truly becomes necessary.