In My Opinion

State’s loser lawsuits waste taxpayer money

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

MiamiHerald.com/columnists

Ideology ain’t cheap.

The current regime in Tallahassee, for example, has been spending a considerable chunk of taxpayer money on loser lawsuits of the ideological kind.

To be fair, the state’s futile attempt to flog the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. Supreme Court was a relative bargain after splitting the legal fees with 25 other states. Florida’s bill reportedly came to less than $79,000.

Of course, there have been costs beyond all those appellate lawyers. Gov. Rick Scott refused to accept $106 million in federal grants tied to the health care act — a rather pricey bit of quixotic politics in a state so strapped for money. But the legal fees Florida has run up in this particular lawsuit? Just a piddling amount compared to the bucks we’ve spent in court on behalf of other constitutionally questionable causes.

Over the last year, the state has frittered away hundreds of thousands of our dollars defending challenges to laws inspired by Tallahassee’s strident new agenda. State lawyers have been in court defending, without much success, the privatization of prisons, drug testing of welfare recipients, drug testing of state workers (though not state legislators or the governor), and the shifting of pension costs onto state workers. Plus, of course, that peculiar NRA-inspired law that severely limited what doctors — even pediatricians and psychiatrists — could discuss with their patients about firearms.

Any teenager, after a few hours in a high school American government class, would know enough about the First Amendment to knock down Docs versus Glocks in federal court. U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, of course, sided with the docs in September. But the gang in Tallahassee, who see themselves as the elected representatives of the National Rifle Association, decided to appeal. Daniel Vice, an attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told reporters that the state, defending such an obviously unconstitutional loser of a law, would also be stuck with the plaintiff attorneys’ fees. The final bill for Docs Versus Glocks, he predicted, would be in the millions.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that an Atlanta law firm representing the state has billed taxpayers $484,672 on the way to losing a challenge against the new pension law, which sought to circumvent union contracts and levy a three percent charge onto the pay of state workers. Not to worry, though. The state has set aside another half million for appeals.

The state also hired outside help to defend radical changes to the state voter laws. The hired guns were of no help in fighting off the challenge to the sharp new restrictions on voter registration. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle blocked enforcement of the law, calling it “harsh and impractical.”

Judge Hinkle did side with Gov. Scott last week, refusing to issue an injunction before the federal challenge to his voter purge goes to trial — though the judge warned that if state officials try to revive the purge using inaccurate information, “I’m still here.”

And so, too, are our lawyers.

The state spent about $39,000 in legal fees last fall unsuccessfully fending off a challenge to another new state law — supposed to be a big money saver — that required recipients of welfare to undergo drug tests. No luck. U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven issued a temporary restraining order along with a bit of understatement, noting that the law “appears likely to be deemed a constitutional infringement.”

The New York Times, looking into the case, discovered that during the four months that the law had been in effect before the federal judge intervened, only 108 of the 4,086 welfare clients tested had showed signs of drug use, most of those for marijuana. The state had spent $118,140, to administer the constitutionally questionable tests — $45,780 more than we would have paid to in benefits to those who failed the tests.

The state has had no better luck, so far, defending a law requiring the drug testing of state employees. Or the privatization of prisons.

The Legislature also spent more $1.8 million in court tussles over redistricting and a losing attempt to undo the Fair Districts Constitutional Amendment, though that particular exercise, however expensive, had less to do with ideology than the usual, mundane determination of the ruling party to cling to power.

The Legislature has added three amendment questions on the November ballot that promise another windfall for the legal profession. One, dubbed the “health care freedom” referendum, would supposedly neutralize the national health-care law. Another raises the old and always litigious abortion question.

And finally voters will be asked to decide whether to enshrine a variation on school prayer, recast for this election as “inspirational messages,” in the state constitution. But the referendum cleverly leaves implementation up to each of the 67 individual school boards.

The Florida School Boards Association was uninspired, advising members that if the amendment passes to forgo inspirational messages. Executive Director Wayne Blanton told the Tallahassee Democrat, “They can be assured if they adopt a policy they will be in litigation and it will cost a lot of money.”

Someone should have sent that same message to the governor and Legislature. Like I said, ideology ain’t cheap.

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