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Dems Call for Special Session on Gun Control

August 21st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida Democrats are calling for a Special Session on gun issues in response to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.

This isn’t the first time Democrats have attempted to bring the Legislature back to Tallahassee to discuss guns, but the move will require all of Florida’s legislators to go on record, which could be used in the 2020 campaign.

For the third time in six years Florida Democrats are calling for a special session on gun control.

The first attempt in 2013 came after George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting Trayvon Martin.

“Specifically to call for a special session around stand your ground,” said then-State Representative Alan Williams, who participated in a sit-in at the Governor’s Office demanding the session in 2013.

The effort failed to gather the necessary three-fifths support to trigger the session.

So too did a call for a special session in response to the Pulse Night Club shooting back three years later.

“Suspected and known terrorists should not be able to possess firearms in the state of Florida,” said then-State Senator Darren Soto at a 2016 press conference calling for the session.

This time Democrats want to discuss multiple gun proposals including private sale background checks and banning high capacity magazines.

However, both the Senate President and House Speaker have come out against the renewed calls, making the prospect of a 2019 special session unlikely.

On Twitter, Speaker Jose Oliva highlighted the fact committee meetings begin in only a month.

During those meetings he said he expects, “Robust discussions about our Second Amendment rights, mental health, and their importance in our society.”

Still, Florida law requires the state to poll all 160 members of the Legislature on whether to hold the special session.

In the wake of both El Paso and Dayton, Democrats may hope to use that vote in 2020 campaigns.

“We care a lot about the safety of our communities and our children and we’re watching our legislators and what they’re doing and how they’re responding,” said Kate Kile with Moms Demand Action. “We are responding to the violence we’re seeing in our society. We would hope that our elected officials would also respond in kind.”

Legislators have until next Tuesday to respond, but in the past some have chosen not to go on record when the outcome seemed clear.

The Department of State will be providing daily updates on the vote count.

The first total is expected to be released around 5 pm Wednesday.

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Florida’s 99th Execution Set for Thursday

August 21st, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Forty years ago, on May 25, 1979, Florida ended a 15-year hiatus on executions.

Public protest over executions has quieted considerably since they resumed in 1979.

Gary Ray Bowles has killed at least six people.

All were violent.

He clearly fits the criteria set by Governor Ron DeSantis for using the ultimate penalty.

“I’m supportive of it for the most serious offenses,” said DeSantis in March.

Unless stopped, Bowles death Thursday evening will be the state’s 99th execution since the death penalty was reinstated.

“There are specific concerns with this case,” said Ingrid Delgado with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Catholic Conference has called on the Governor to stop the execution, arguing Florida is safe with Bowles behind bars.

Testimony also shows the 57 year old was abused.

“He suffered extreme violence at the hands of his step fathers,” said Delgado. “When he escaped that violence, he was a victim of homelessness and child prostitution, and we know that through neural scientific research that adverse traumatic experiences do affect future behavior.”

While it has taken 40 years for the state to get to its 99th execution, it did execute nearly twice as many, 196, between 1924 and 1964 when it went on a hiatus.

In 1979, the Capitol was awash in protests for over a week pending the first execution in a decade and a half.

But unlike 40 years ago, fewer than a dozen are expected to protest the execution and pay their respects to the victims when they gather in the Capitol rotunda Friday.

First Lady Casey DeSantis has cancelled a Thursday appearance at a Women for Trump Rally in Tampa.

The Governor’s office said the appearance was cancelled out of respect for the victims.

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Faircloth Family Seeks Civil Justice for 2014 Hit-and-Run

August 20th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The family of a Tampa teen who was hit and permanently disabled by a drunk driver near FSU in 2014 is back in court seeking damages from two bars that allegedly over-served both the driver and the victim the night of the accident. 
In 2014 Devon Dwyer, a suspected drunk driver, hit and severely injured Tampa teen and FSU hopeful Jackie Faircloth while crossing an intersection near the campus.
Her father told us in December of that year the outlook was grim.
“We’ve come to learn this type of an injury is not something that heals quickly,” said John Faircloth.
Dwyer was sentenced to two and a half years for the hit and run.
 
According to the Florida Department of Corrections Devon Dwyer has completed his prison sentence and is now serving eight years of community supervision.
Jackie is now living in an assisted living facility, permanently disabled from the crash.
“She can move her arm either left or right for yes or no if you pick up her arm,” said Jackie’s cousin, Katie Faircloth, in a deposition recorded in January.
The incident, while devastating, has resulted in some road safety improvements around FSU’s campus.
 
A flashing cross walk was installed at the scene of the accident by the city of Tallahassee to improve pedestrian visibility at the intersection.
 
Suing in civil court, the Faircloth family is hoping to recover damages from two bars, Potbelly’s and the now-closed Cantina 101, which are alleged to have served Jackie and Dwyer the night of the crash.
 
Both Dwyer and Jackie were underaged when the accident occurred. 
Court testimony suggests both were intoxicated as well. 
A previous attempt to collect more than $46 million from the bars earlier this year ended in a hung jury and mistrial.
State Attorney Jack Campbell, who prosecuted Dwyer, hopes for a different outcome this time.
“That the case would be able to resolve and help them in their recovery as victims,” said Campbell. “That the case would be able to resolve and help them in their recovery as victims. I wish we could do something more obviously medically so that Jackie could be better.”
Attorneys representing the Faircloth family and the restaurants declined to comment on the case, fearing the possibility of another mistrial.

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Florida’s First Lady to Cancels Appearance at Trump Campaign Event for Scheduled Execution

August 20th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis has decided to forgo a Trump Campaign event scheduled for Thursday, because of an execution set for the same day.
The execution of convicted serial killer Gary Ray Bowles will be the 99th execution carried out in Florida since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
The Governor’s office has indicated the First Lady’s decision to cancel her appearance is inline with a policy that no part of the Executive branch participate in a public event during an execution.
Ingrid Delgado with The Florida Conference for Catholic Bishops, who oppose the death penalty, said all Floridians should take time to reflect Thursday.
“We would ask for all Floridians really to recognize just the somber moment that there is with this execution, with all executions. And we really invite all Floridians to join us at over 30 prayer vigils throughout the state,” said Delgado.
For a list of the vigils being hosted by the Catholic Conference visit FLACCB.org.

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Feds Take Over Marijuana Prosecutions Amid Hemp Legalization

August 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

After multiple state attorneys across Florida announced the legalization of hemp would delay or even halt some marijuana prosecutions the US Attorney for Florida’s Northern District has announced the feds will take the reigns. 
 
The move could set new standards for marijuana prosecutions.
The legalization of hemp, marijuana’s non-psychoactive identical twin, propped state attorneys like Jack Campbell to reevaluate how they handle cases involving marijuana.
“We still are in a posture of trying to get the resources to be able to test it,” said Campbell.
In the meantime, Campbell and many other state attorneys have decided to delay or drop marijuana cases.
“The Legislature is still very clear that marijuana is illegal in this state,” said Campbell. “They’re also very clear that hemp is legal in this state. So we just need to be able to differentiate.”
Now US Attorney of Florida’s Northern District Lawrence Keefe, who oversees 25 Florida counties, has said his office will take over the caseload. 
“I welcome Mr. Keefe and the US Attorney’s Office. The resources they bring to bare are clearly wonderful and broad,” said Campbell.
Campbell said the federal cases will establish standards for pot prosecutions in the age of hemp.
“Things like an officer’s ability to smell, a K-9’s ability to smell, whether that still suffices for probable cause,” said Campbell.
 
With help from the DEA, the federal justice system is better equipped to distinguish hemp from marijuana than the state, which at the current time has no effective way to test the THC content of suspected pot without going through expensive private labs.
But President of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Richard Greenberg worries offenders will face stiffer penalties in federal court.
“I think it is unfortunate particularly this day in age when there’s a movement toward lessening the penalties for marijuana,” said Greenberg.
It’s not clear what level of offenses Keefe intends to prosecute. 
Campbell said his office alone handles more than 1,000 misdemeanor possession cases a year.
Keefe did indicate his office plans to temporarily deputize state prosecutors to help manage the marijuana cases.
However, we did not receive a response when we reached out to his office for more details.

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Restorative Justice Advocates Want to Spread the Practice Through Florida

August 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
Criminal justice advocates and faith leaders are emphasizing the value of restorative justice over punishment based methods.
The Florida Restorative Justice Association highlighted success in a Colorado city, which saw only one out of ten offenders return to prison after going through a restorative justice process and 95 percent victim satisfaction.
The group is hoping to spread the methods throughout Florida’s criminal justice system and also integrate restorative justice into education discipline.
Executive Director Dan Khan said restorative justice helps offenders reintegrate into society while also bringing victims closure.
“We’re coming face to face and we’re dealing with what happened and we’re trying to heal it and fix it,” said Khan. “When you leave out of that, I think you feel more of a sense of connection to community, more of a sense of accountability, you have more of a sense of the impacts of your actions and that what you do matters for better or for worse.”
Currently four Florida counties have implemented restorative justice practices into their schools. 
Six municipalities have restorative justice programs within their criminal justice systems.

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VisitFlorida Sets Sights on Eco-Tourism Market

August 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida continues to see record breaking tourism numbers, but with all that travel comes the potential for carbon emissions and damage to the environment.

The state’s tourism agency is trying a new approach, targeting eco-tourists.

At the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab about 30 miles southwest of the state’s capital, co-founder Jack Rudloe told us the whole operation would be in serious trouble without a key element.

“Volunteers are critical to Gulf Specimen,” said Rudloe.

Some volunteers are local.

Others travel as far as Canada.

“It’s a vactation for them and also in the winter time the snow birds get out of the freeze,” said Rudloe.

With a record 68.9 million visitors coming to the Sunshine State in the first half of this year alone, VisitFlorida, the state’s primary tourism agency, has launched a new initiative that could help organizations like the marine lab.

Its new online portal aims to attract eco-tourists, steering them towards volunteer opportunities like the ones at the Marine Lab

“VisitFlorida is finally moving a little bit off the center of Disney and all of the other great big attractions and Mickey Mouse, to what we really have here in Florida,” said Rudloe.

For those who aren’t ready to commit their vacation time to volunteering, VisitFlorida’s online portal also highlights eco-tourism destinations and tips for reducing your vacation’s carbon footprint.

Conservationists like Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters point out when the environment is healthy, so too is Florida tourism.

“Most people come to Florida with an expectation of spending some time outside, spending some time in nature,” said Moncrief.

And teaching green lessons to Florida visitors spreads the ideas across the world when vacationers return home.

To learn more about eco-tourism destinations in Florida, click this link.

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Guardianships Under Investigation

August 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The state is investigating its own Office of Public and Private Guardianships following the opening of two criminal investigations into the conduct of an Orlando area court appointed guardian, but some believe the alleged misconduct is an ongoing statewide problem.

FreeEanestine.com is Doug Franks’ ode to his mother.

Franks fought the guardianship system four and a half years trying to free his mother.

She died in 2016.

The same year Franks convinced lawmakers guardians need to be regulated.

“There is nothing that can make up for the time that I was deprived from my mom,” said Franks. “Nothing!”

Since the legislation took effect, the state has investigated 764 allegations.

Both the Attorney General and FDLE say they are investigating an Orlando guardian

“We currently have an active investigation into Rebecca Fierle and her business and how she conducted her business,” said Jeremy Burns with FDLE.

Fierle resigned and withdrew from a hundred cases after she filed a do not resuscitate order against a client’s wishes.

“And that’s just one of thousands I’m sure in the state of Florida that are doing the same thing,” said Franks.

Kathleen Zargaros of Tampa told us a similar story about her mother shortly after the law passed.

“She was forced into guardianship based on lies, then she was forced into hospice,” said Zargaros.

The Governor has also ordered a probe of the state office regulating guardians.

“And I told them to pursue it vigorously,” said Franks.

Doug’s mother Earnestine died 45 days after he won her freedom.

“We had a fantastic 45 days,” said Franks. “The day my mom passed was…is the best day of our lives.”

The Governor has told his agencies they have six months to come up with legislation and administrative actions to fix the problems with guardians.

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Florida Dems Deploy Voter Hotline

August 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s primary election for state offices is just over a year away, but Florida Democrats are already asking voters to call a new hotline they claim is designed to combat voter suppression.

Florida Democratic Chair, Terri Rizzos said they want to hear from anyone caught up by new restrictions on felons voting as well as other problems.

“Also they have attempted to restrict voting on college campuses. So these are the kind of things we need and those kinds of things plus restricting the number of days for supervisors of elections to mail vote by mail ballots,” said Rizzos. “These are the kind of things we want to be working on.”

If you know of problems, no matter which party in which you are registered, the number Democrats want you to call is: 1-833-VOTE-FLA (1-833-868-3352).

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Floridians Supportive of a Florida Candidate for Presidency in 2024

August 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

While most people haven’t even started to focus on the 2020 election, a new poll tested how supportive Floridians are of a 2024 Presidential race involving either the Governor or Florida’s two US Senators.

Many believe all three could vie for the Presidency.

Famed pollster Tony Fabrizio was polling for a business client.

He and decided to tag on one question: Who is Floridians favorite son for President in 2024? Governor Ron DeSantis, US Senator Marco Rubio, or US Senator Rick Scott?

With his approval ratings soaring, DeSantis won hands down.

“And I think the positions he’s taken have established him as a national leader,” said Morton Kline with the Zionist Organization Of America.

And the Presidency was clearly on a lot of minds during the Governor’s trade mission to Israel.

”And I really hope and pray that he seeks national office sometime in the future,” said Kline.

At a luncheon, the Governor sat next to big time GOP donor Sheldon Adelson.

His wife Miriam Adelson praised DeSantis profusely.

“Ron is a warrior,” said Miriam.

After meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli media asked DeSantis is he would consider a bid for President.
“Ah, Certainly not in 2020. You can guarantee that,” said DeSantis.

2024’s election is still more than five years away.

Both DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio will face voters in 2022, and would have to win to be viable for the Presidency.

Long time GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich says a lot can happen in five years.

“And as the poll numbers for Senator Scott and Senator Rubio tell you, the better people know you, the less they’re gonna like you,” said Stipanovich.

Rubio has already run once, and insiders in both DeSantis and Scott camps aren’t ruling it out.

An advantage for Governor DeSantis is that he can be in a Florida media market every day as the campaign heats up.

Scott and Rubio won’t have that luxury.

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First Hearing Scheduled in Amendment 4 Lawsuit

August 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The first hearing in a Federal case challenging the law that requires felons to pay all fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote has been set for October.

The decision that comes out of that hearing could have a major impact on who is eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election.

1.4 million felons were initially expected to have their voting rights restored under Amendment 4, but those hopes were diminished when the Legislature passed the law tying financial obligations to restoration.

Lawsuits were filed almost immediately.

“Let’s just hope all of that is expedited so people have some clear direction before the 2020 election,” said Clemency attorney Reggie Garcia.

A Federal Judge will consider two key issues in the case in a hearing set for October 7th.

First, if the financial requirements should be temporarily blocked while the case makes its way through the courts as requested by the plaintiffs.

Second, possibly dismissing the case altogether, which was requested by the Governor and Secretary of State, who have argued the issue should be decided by the State Supreme Court.

Despite roughly 400,000 felons voting rights hanging in the balance of the case, political analysts are split on whether a decision would impact the 2020 election.

“It would certainty have an impact,” said GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich.

Stipanovich said Florida’s tight elections can be easily swung one way or another.

“Statewide elections whether for Governor or for President are decided by tens of thousands of votes not hundreds of thousands of votes,” said Stipanovich.

Democratic strategist Steve Schale said he believes partisan concerns are overblown.

“When you look at the demographics of people who fall into this universe of people they’re as diverse ideologically, racially, gender-wise as Florida is,” said Schale. “So I think some of the politics of who this benefits has been overplayed. I’m not sure that there’s a real 2020 impact politically.”

Depending on the outcome of October’s hearing an official trial could come as early as Spring of 2020.

Whichever side loses will likely appeal, pushing a final resolution even closer to the General election.

In the meantime, the Governor has asked the Florida Supreme Court to determine if fines, fees and restitution are required by the amendment approved by 64 percent of voters.

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Social Security Turns 84

August 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Social Security is celebrated its 84th birthday Wednesday.

Implemented in 1935, the program distributes hundreds of billions of dollars to seniors and people with disabilities throughout the nation each year.

Seniors throughout the state held birthday celebrations for the program that more than half a million Floridians benefit from.

Their motto: Cut the cake not social security.

“This is the kind of legislation that makes America great,” said Terry Joe Chapman with the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans.

For retirees like Barbara DeVane, Social Security is a lifeline.

“It’s all that stands between me and poverty and I’m not alone,” said DeVane.

Advocates for retirees said one of their greatest challenges is dispelling the myth that today’s youth will never see the benefits of the program.

FSU student Sasha Moore told us she was unsure if the program would survive until her retirement.

“I haven’t been taught anything about it. It’s just like hearsay,” said Moore.

Another student, Justin Baldwin, said he was preparing for the worst case scenario.

“That’s just kind of how I live my life you know? I’m not really relying on it,” said Baldwin.

Bill Sauers with the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans said the program is self sustaining.

“The more people you have involved the lower the cost and the risk for everyone involved,” said Sauers.

Baby boomers are projected to see smaller payments by 2035, but Sauers said even that could be avoided by raising the current cap.

Annual earnings above $132,900 aren’t subject to the 6.2 percent social security tax.

“Raise that to $250,000 we would have enough money to pay 100 percent benefits for ever and ever. Amen! Plus have money to expand it,” said Sauers.

As of 2019 retiring at age 66 comes with a maximum payout of $2,861 a month.

More than 578,000 Floridians received nearly $325 million through Social Security in 2017 alone.

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36 Counties Have a Guardian Program Going into the 2019 School Year

August 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

An interim statewide grand jury report found many schools were not following state law that requires an armed presence in every school, but more than half of Florida’s 67 counties are beginning the school year with a program that puts non-sworn armed guardians in schools.

The Department of Education reported the school year is beginning with 36 counties that have now adopted the Guardian Program.

Some allow teachers to be armed, but the majority limit gun carrying to non-classroom personnel.

“We will not have any teachers with weapons on them on our campuses,” said Gadsden County School Superintendent Roger Milton.

Gadsden County guardians trained for a total of 196 hours during the summer, which is 52 hours above what is required under state law.

One of those who underwent the training was Milton himself, who also has a grandchild in the Gadsden school system.

“I wanted to see exactly what the training consisted of,” said Milton. “I wanted to lean more about the officers and the instructors that was providing the training.”

Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young first resisted the idea, then quickly realized it was the the only way to protect every school with the resources available.

“This gives us a level of security on campus, equipped and ready to handle a major situation,” said Young.

In Gadsden County, 31 people applied to be guardians.

Only 13 made it past the original screening, and only eight passed the final course.

Both the Sheriff and Superintendent are confident guardians like Temperance Blocker will come through if they face a crisis.

So is she.

“Yes, I’ve been well trained to do so. I’m physically and mentally prepared,” said Blocker.

In the end, the Sheriff Young said the guardians are there for one reason alone.

“To keep our children safe,” said Young.

And the Department of Education expects more districts will follow suit.

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Circuit Judge Strikes Blow to Teachers Unions in Case Against Membership Requirements

August 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

As students around the state make their way back into the classrooms, Florida teachers unions are coping with a defeat in their case against a law requiring them to maintain 50 percent membership or else face a recertification process.

The law passed in 2018 law requires teachers unions to undergo a mandatory re-certification vote if they fall below the 50 percent threshold.

Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey upheld the requirement at face value in a summary judgement issued Friday.

“We lost round one, but there’s many more to go,” said Tom Brooks, an attorney representing unions in the suit.

Now the case goes to trial where teachers unions hope to prove the law unconstitutionally singles them out.

“The Legislature has passed a statute that has a completely irrational basis,” said Brooks.

The author of the original certification language Rep. Scott Plakon said in 2018, he was concerned teachers unions weren’t meeting the needs of all their members.

“There’s a number of unions in the state that have a very low percentage of the bargaining units that actually pay dues and I would interpret that as they’re not being responsive to their members,” said Plakon.

In the summary judgement, judge Dempsey cited the state’s teacher shortage as justification for the unique requirement, explaining the state has a legitimate interest in keeping teachers satisfied with their representation.

Despite the law having been in effect for a full year, no teachers unions have so far failed to attain 50 percent membership.

Brooks said even prior to the law’s passage there was an existing decertification process, but teachers rarely, if ever, invoked it.

“It hasn’t happened,” said Brooks. “Under this law, not a single employee has to say ‘I don’t want to continue the union’.”

Based on those facts, unions believe the Legislature’s true intent was to hurt unions, not help teachers.

We reached out to the Department of Education for comment, but did not receive a response.

The current Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran was House Speaker when the law was passed in 2018.

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Governor Invokes Rarely Used Power Asking for Justices Opinion

August 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron SDeSantis is invoking a rarely used  power, asking the state Supreme Court whether the voter approved restoration of voting rights also includes the payment of all fines, fees, and restitution. The request may be an effort to short circuit a federal lawsuit.

In a four page letter, the Governor is asking the Supreme court whether it believes the voter approved amendment restoring a felons right to vote also requires paying all fines, fees, and other financial obligations. 

It’s a question justices themselves asked of sponsor Jon Mills when deciding if the amendment could go on the ballot back in March of 2017..

“All matters. Anything a judge puts in a sentence” Mills told the court.

“So it would also include the full payment of any fines?” Asked Justice Ricky Polston,, to which Mills replied: “Yes sir.”

Clemency attorney Reggie Garcia is quick to point out the implementing law allows felons to ask a judge and state attorney: “To either waive these financial obligations completely, or convert them to community service” says Garcia.

The ACLU and the League of Women Voters are challenging the amendments implementing law in Federal Court. They say in part it violates the 24th amendment which prohibits a poll tax. 

With a Federal lawsuit already filed, some believe the Governor’s letter asking for an opinion is an attempt to get a state court, the Supreme Court, to make a decision before a Federal court rules.

Human Rights Attorney and FSU Law Professor Mark Schlakman thinks having a state court rule on a state constitutional question is a good idea.

“One might surmise that if any entity is to interpret the Florida Constitution as a result of the amendment becoming affective, that that authority should be the Florida Supreme Court” says Schlakman.

The request for the courts opinion is rare. Governors have asked the court for advice just 8 times since 1989.

And the last time the court was asked for an opinion was in 2010 by then Governor Charlie Crist. It had to do with the Governor’s authority to fill vacancies in the judiciary.

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