Leaving behind months of political turbulence, the Florida Supreme Court in 2013 could decide a series of high-profile cases dealing with issues such as the state pension system and medical-malpractice lawsuits.
Justices have already heard arguments in the cases, but as is common, have not yet ruled. It is clear, however, that state leaders and a wide range of interest groups are waiting for the decisions, which, at least in one case, could have a major impact on Florida's budget.
While the Supreme Court's behind-the-scenes deliberations are private, three justices will be able to work without having to worry that they could be ousted from their jobs. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince won merit-retention elections in November after weathering a controversial attempt by some conservative groups to drive them off the court.
The court will issue dozens of opinions in 2013, but here are five cases to watch:
GOVERNMENT WORKER PENSIONS: The Supreme Court is considering whether to uphold a 2011 law that requires government employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to the state retirement system.
A Leon County circuit judge, pointing to a 1974 law, ruled that the requirement could not be imposed on workers who had been hired before July 1, 2011. That ruling was a victory for the Florida Education Association and other groups, which argue that already-existing employees had a contractual right that protected them from having to contribute to their pensions.
"You can't change the game in the middle of the game (for already-existing employees),'' FEA attorney Ron Meyer told justices during arguments in September.
But the state contends that the Legislature had the power to require the pension contributions, which took effect July 1. Also, it says a court decision striking down the employee pension contributions would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
"If the Florida Supreme Court affirms all or part of the circuit court decision in the … retirement litigation, the impact to the state budget will be substantial,'' said a long-range financial outlook presented to lawmakers this month by the state Office of Economic & Demographic Research.
MEDICAL MALPRACTICE CAPS: A decade after lawmakers overhauled the medical-malpractice system to try to reduce insurance costs, the Supreme Court is poised to rule on damage limits that were a centerpiece of the legislation.
The estate of Michelle McCall, a Panhandle woman who died in 2006 from complications after giving birth, is challenging the 2003 law's limits on what are known as "non-economic damages" that can be recovered in malpractice cases. The law included limits of $500,000 or $1 million, depending on the circumstances and number of people involved in a case.
Arguing that she had not received proper care, McCall's estate sued the federal government because she was part of a military family and was treated by Air Force staff. A judge found that her survivors should receive $2 million in non-economic damages, but the award was reduced to $1 million because of the state law limiting such damages.
Critics argue, in part, that the limits restrict medical-malpractice victims' access to the courts. But during Supreme Court arguments in February, Daniel Lenerz, a U.S. Justice Department attorney representing the federal government in the case, said lawmakers had substantial evidence the limits were needed to hold down costs and to stabilize the medical-malpractice insurance market.
Lenerz argued that overturning the law "would perpetuate this boom and bust cycle that has afflicted" the market.
BOARD OF GOVERNORS POWERS: Amid a broader debate about the costs of attending state universities, the Supreme Court is considering a long-running legal dispute about the powers of the Florida Board of Governors.
The lawsuit, filed against the Legislature by a group that includes former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, centers on whether a 2002 constitutional amendment establishing the board gave it the authority to set tuition and fees. The constitutional amendment does not spell out that power, but plaintiffs argue it implicitly does.
“All of the Legislature’s authority goes over based on the constitutional amendment, unless there is a constitutional exception,” attorney Robin Gibson, who represented Graham, said during October arguments.
But opponents dispute that position, pointing to the Legislature's constitutional power to raise and appropriate money. They argue that the 2002 constitutional amendment was not meant to give the Board of Governors the types of power sought in the case.
The 1st District Court of Appeal in 2011 sided with the Legislature's arguments, saying it saw nothing in the constitutional amendment that "divested the Legislature of its 'power of the purse' over state university tuition and fees by vesting that authority in the board."
NUCLEAR PROJECT COSTS: Hoping to encourage additional nuclear power, lawmakers in 2006 approved a measure that allows utilities to pass along project costs to customers long before new nuclear plants start generating electricity.