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Manatee lawyers learn constitution revision history ahead of the commission’s first public meeting

UF law professor Mary Adkins, who wrote new book Making Modern Florida which analyzes the 1965 Constitution Revision Commission, addresses the Manatee County Bar Association luncheon at Pier 22 Wednesday.
UF law professor Mary Adkins, who wrote new book Making Modern Florida which analyzes the 1965 Constitution Revision Commission, addresses the Manatee County Bar Association luncheon at Pier 22 Wednesday. ttompkins@bradenton.com

Hours before the Constitution Revision Commission’s first public meeting at University of Central Florida in Orlando, Manatee County attorneys listened to the history of changing Florida’s Constitution.

University of Florida law professor Mary Adkins gave members of the Manatee County Bar Association a sliver of the contents of her new book, “Making Modern Florida,” Wednesday afternoon during a luncheon at Pier 22.

The purpose of the CRC is to update the state’s constitution every 20 years. The 37-member commission, chaired by Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff, meets with the public to learn about important issues, then recommends proposals that will be voted on in November 2018, which will require a vote of 60 percent to pass.

“It’s awesome power. It goes right straight to the ballot, right straight to all of us,” Adkins said. “It does not go through the legislature; it does not go through the governor. It’s huge power.”

From a time when interracial marriages were banned “forever” to the commission with the only “lady senator,” Adkins listed colorful anecdotes of the constitution’s history, now in its sixth iteration.

Some of Manatee County’s history was thrown into the mix, as Arcadia-native and lawyer Chesterfield Smith served as chair of the CRC in 1965, whose members also included Lawton Chiles and Reubin Askew. Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Claude Kirk Jr. — who Adkins said was also known as “Kissing Claude” — would sit next to Smith and ask question after question, soaking in the understanding for the need of revising the constitution.

In a question-and-answer session, one attendee asked Adkins what she thought about the independence of the judiciary being an area of compromise, pointing to Beruff and other appointed members, if the legislature for example doesn’t like a judge’s decision and would want to overrule it.

“This might be where I get to say, ‘Why do people ask historians about the future?’ ” she responded, with a laugh from the audience. “I do expect there to be attempts to weaken the judiciary. I don’t know how far they’ll get.”

Adkins added that she would think if such a proposal made it to the ballot, Floridians wouldn’t let it pass.

Lisa Carlton, a member of the commission and a former state senator, was also in attendance. Both Carlton and Beruff — the sole representatives for Manatee-Sarasota — were appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. A Manatee bar representative said Beruff was invited to the luncheon but did not attend because of the meeting in Orlando, which can be watched live at flcrc.gov.

“Having that history and that background on previous CRC commissions and how they operated and the challenges they had is certainly going to be something I’m going to take with me the next year and a half,” she said after the presentation. “This was very timely.”

Since the last CRC was in 1998, Carlton added that the age of the internet is what’s keeping the commission in the sun.

“This is of course going to be the first CRC commission in the history of Florida that will really have access to the internet,” she said, adding that citizen input will come from public meetings and their website. “This is going to probably be the most open CRC process that Florida has ever seen.”

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse

Scheduled Constitution Revision Commission public meetings

March 29: Orange County

April 6: Miami-Dade County

April 7: Palm Beach County

April 12: Escambia County

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