TALLAHASSEE -- When voters choose from among five candidates to be Florida's next attorney general, their decision could have a profound effect on some of the state's most highly charged issues, from gay adoption to healthcare reform.
Florida's unique gay adoption ban underscores how the state's chief legal officer can use the position to advance a personal philosophy while adhering to the duties of the job.
Attorney General Bill McCollum has come under fire recently for advocating the use of an expert witness who has been discredited while defending the state's ban on gay couples adopting children.
Three Republicans seeking the post -- Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, former state healthcare secretary Holly Benson and former Hillsborough prosecutor Pam Bondi -- all say they would continue to uphold the adoption ban.
``The best home for any child is a two-parent home with a mother and a father,'' Benson said.
But both Democrats, state Sens. Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber, say Florida has spent enough defending an antiquated law.
``I don't think as a lawyer I can make a straight-faced argument that the ban is constitutional,'' said Gelber of Miami Beach.
The challenge comes from a North Miami man who wanted to adopt two foster children that are living with him and his partner. A Miami judge ruled the law unconstitutional in 2008. The state's appeal of that ruling is pending.
McCollum is defending the ban on behalf of the Department of Children and Families. He personally pushed to hire psychologist George Rekers as an expert witness. Rekers was found to have gone on a European vacation with a gay escort.
In public appearances, Bondi refused to say if she would take the case to the Supreme Court if the state loses the appeal. In an interview Friday, she clarified her position: ``I will continue with General McCollum's appeal. If [the Supreme Court] can legally hear it, yes, I will appeal.''
The Supreme Court must first agree to hear the case before any candidate can appeal.
At a Tiger Bay forum in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, Bondi said that as attorney general, she would support whatever law is on the books.
At a May 18 event in Miami Lakes, she mentioned two gay friends before saying that the adoption process as a whole needs reform.
``I have friends in Tampa who are in law enforcement who have adopted from overseas, who are in a loving, committed same-sex relationship,'' Bondi said.
Former attorney general Bob Butterworth, a Democrat who held the post for 16 years, said Bondi's earlier comments have some precedent.
``If the Legislature passes legislation, your first duty is to defend it,'' Butterworth said. ``I've handled cases over the years that I didn't quite agree with, but that's not my decision.''
Butterworth said he personally disagrees with the law and that judges should decide if a couple is fit for adoption. When the law was first challenged, Butterworth was the head of DCF.
He asked McCollum to defend the suit because he was focused on ``turning around'' an agency beset by repeated troubles and didn't want to pick a fight with the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Aronberg, of Greenacres, said the attorney general has wide discretion on appealing cases and that ``we have wasted enough taxpayer money'' on defending the ban.
A department spokesman said Florida has spent $383,000 on defending the ban, half of which is for attorneys fees. The other half is for general expenses, including $120,000 to Rekers.