TALLAHASSEE -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has hired two more lawyers and is planning to add another to help handle an expected workload increase resulting from the Republican-led Legislature’s recently ended session.
The ACLU, unions and some liberal and non-partisan groups are gearing up for potential legal challenges to legislation as well as at least one of Gov. Rick Scott’s executive orders. They are reviewing measures that they say violate privacy, free speech, voting, due process, collective bargaining and other constitutional rights and requirements.
“I didn’t realize at the time of the election that when Gov. Scott said ‘Let’s get to work,’ he was referring to the lawyers in the state, but that seems to be the way it’s working out,” Tallahassee attorney Ron Meyer said. His clients include the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, which is considering challenges to several measures.
“This legislative session has been maybe the biggest disaster for personal freedoms and human rights, and the list is long,” said Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida’s executive director.
Some of the same measures that Simon and other critics say would curtail various rights do just the opposite in the eyes of their Republican supporters.
“The Legislature passed multiple measures which stand up for Floridians’ freedoms,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in a statement Thursday. “Anyone who files suit following the passage of laws has every right to do so. At the end of the day, we can only do what we know in good conscience is best to ensure our children have a bright future.”
The ACLU is targeting several changes to the state’s election law that it believes would suppress minority voting and a measure that requires welfare applicants to get drug tests, saying it would violate privacy rights. The ACLU also may challenge a state constitutional amendment that would repeal Florida’s ban on using public funds to aid churches and other religious organizations.
Simon said the passage of legally questionable legislation was no surprise. He said the ACLU began planning to beef up its legal staff shortly after the election in November of Scott, a Republican, and overwhelming GOP majorities in the House and Senate.
No final decisions have been made, but Meyer said “it’s a relative certainty” the teachers union will sue over a new law linking teacher pay to student test scores and eliminating tenure for new hires.
“It expressly, in some instances, prohibits collective bargaining,” Meyer said.
That includes limiting consideration of advanced degrees in setting salaries and requiring that half of teachers’ performance evaluations be based on how much each of their students improves on standardized tests. Those evaluations will be used to decide which teachers get merit raises. The law also says seniority cannot be a factor in deciding which teachers will be laid off if cuts are made.
The League of Women Voters and ACLU may challenge an election bill sponsors say would prevent fraud. Critics say the real intent is to discourage minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic from casting ballots.
The league has decided to discontinue voter registration drives in Florida if the bill goes into effect. Members of groups such as the league and Boy Scouts would be required to register with election officials before conducting such drives. They also would have to file regular reports and turn in completed registration forms within 48 hours or else face a $50 fine for each late form.
Other provisions would cut early voting hours and require provisional ballots for voters who make address changes at polling places on Election Day. They later would have to prove their identity before their ballots could be counted.
The welfare drug screening bill would require applicants for federally funded temporary assistance to pay for the tests themselves although those who pass would get reimbursed.
Simon said ACLU may challenge the bill and Scott’s order to screen new hires while randomly testing existing state employees. Such screening violates their privacy rights, he said.