TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida's Republican governor and GOP-led Legislature have mounted an unprecedented attack on civil liberties over the past two years, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report Thursday.
The Florida Republican Party responded with a defense of Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature against ACLU allegations that they've violated voting and free-speech rights, reproductive and religious freedoms and the U.S. Constitution's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"States across the country are watching what happens in Florida because we seem to be kind of a Petri dish for experimenting with social programs and policies," said Maria Kayanan, associate legal director for the ACLU of Florida.
She noted that several states have passed or are considering "copycat" measures based on Florida executive orders and legislation challenged by the ACLU and others.
ACLU officials discussed their report, "Protecting the Rights of Floridians in the Rick Scott Era," with the media during a conference call from Miami.
"The law is clearly not on the governor's side, but I think maybe what he's thinking about is gambling, that by the time these case get to the U.S. Supreme Court he might have an opportunity to change what the constitution has meant," said Howard Simon of the ACLU of Florida.
The state GOP later issued a written response saying "the ACLU has largely failed Florida taxpayers, who voted for and support many of the initiatives that the ACLU opposes."
Those initiatives include a purge of non-citizens from voting rolls, drug testing of welfare applicants, restrictions on voter registration drives and a reduction in early voting days.
The ACLU has been involved in 11 lawsuits that have challenged Scott's executive orders and measures passed by the Legislature or defended Florida constitutional amendments against lawsuits by Democratic and Republican politicians.
"This is unprecedented," said ACLU state legal director Randall Marshall. "The entire focus of the work of the ACLU over the last two years has changed substantially to step up and meet the civil liberties concerns that have been raised."
A Scott spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The ACLU lawsuits include four still-pending cases.
The state has appealed a federal judge's ruling that Scott's executive order for random drug testing of state employees and job applicants amounted to an unconstitutional search and seizure. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta is scheduled to hear oral arguments in March. The Legislature, at Scott's urging, later passed a law with the same effect, but it's on hold pending the executive order decision.
Another federal judge temporarily blocked a similar law requiring drug testing of welfare applicants. That injunction, too, has been appealed by the state. The 11th Circuit heard oral arguments in November but has not yet ruled.
"The ACLU cares more about the privacy rights of drug addicts than it cares about children who are victims of drug abuse," the Republican Party said in its statement.
The state also is appealing a federal judge's injunction against a law limiting what doctors can ask patients about gun ownership. That case also is before the 11th Circuit.
The fourth unresolved case is a challenge to the non-citizen voter purge that's pending at the trial court level.
The ACLU and League of Women Voters of Florida won another ruling that struck down restrictions on voter registration drives, including a requirement that registration forms be turned into election officials within 48 hours after being signed.
Another courtroom victory came in a lawsuit defending a pair of state constitutional amendments aimed at curtailing gerrymandering in redistricting.
The ACLU also successfully helped challenge a misleading ballot summary for a proposed amendment that would have repealed the state's ban on public funding of churches and other religious organizations. The state, though, revised the summary, though the amendment later was rejected by voters. The ACLU also participated in successful campaigns against proposed amendments that would have given the Legislature more control over Florida's courts and restricted abortion rights.
The ACLU and its allies lost a pair of challenges to other state election-law provisions including a reduction of early-voting days from 14 to eight. That change has been blamed for contributing to long lines during early and regular voting in November. Even Scott, who refused to use his emergency powers to extend early voting, now says lawmakers should take another look at that issue.
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