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March 24th, 2014

Five Florida Justices: ‘We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Legislatures’

Decision Striking down Limits on Pain-and-Suffering Awards Ignores Will of 2.5 Million Sunshine State Voters

By striking down a 2003 statutory limit on awards for pain and suffering when applied in wrongful death lawsuits against health care providers, five justices of the Florida Supreme Court earlier this month arrogantly and dangerously disregarded the will of more than 2.5 million* Sunshine State voters, the 119 legislators and a governor those voters elected and supported in enacting the bipartisan law, and the hundreds of pages of detailed reports and records on which those lawmakers relied.

The 5-2 high court decision struck down the law’s reasonable $500,000 and $1 million per-incident limits (depending on circumstances) on noneconomic damages in medical negligence cases, ruling that the limits violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause. The majority came to this conclusion even though a federal appeals court had previously ruled that the limits did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

Two justices could barely conceal their contempt for the lawmakers who researched and drafted the 2003 statute in response to what a bipartisan coalition of policy experts deemed at the time to be a crisis in fast-rising malpractice insurance premiums that were driving health care costs higher and making care less available.

Three additional justices seemed cognizant of the fact that, under fundamental principles of constitutional law, courts must respect the policymaking judgment of the legislature so long as the law in question bares any plausible relationship to advancing a legitimate state goal.   But they, too, settled on a contorted rationale for ignoring legislators’ prerogatives by arguing that any medical malpractice crisis that may have existed in 2003 no longer exists today.

This megalomaniacal thinking and retroactive usurpation, if carried to its logical conclusion, effectively makes legislatures obsolete. After all, why should taxpayers fund capital buildings and legislative staff salaries if just a few state supreme court justices can more efficiently substitute their own, presumably much wiser judgment on what should and should not constitute the law?

In their commonsense but pointed dissent, Justices Richard Polston and Charles Canady adduce precedent that dictates the judiciary must “recogniz[e] and respec[t] the Legislature’s role as the primary policymaker in our constitutional system.”

“Indeed,” said Darren McKinney of the American Tort Reform Association, which supports reasonable limits on pain-and-suffering awards like those enacted in Florida.

“But at the risk of sounding like Debbie Wasserman Schultz after Alex Sink’s special-election loss in Florida earlier this month,” McKinney continued, “all is not lost.”

“Though the court’s majority troublingly encroaches on the legislature’s policy-making authority, the disdain its decision shows for lawmakers and the folks who elected them should provide ample motivation for a simple amendment of the relevant statute so it will pass constitutional muster, as now perversely divined by the omnipotent Robed Ones.

“ATRA urges Florida lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott to rally and get that amendment enacted quickly,” McKinney concluded.

*By totaling the previous winning vote counts for the 87 Representatives and 32 Senators who voted for the bill that instituted limits on noneconomic damages (roughly 2.3 million), looking at the previous winning vote count for then-Gov. Jeb Bush (roughly 2.8 million), and then subtracting a conservative but educated estimate of the number of voters who may have supported Bush but none of the lawmakers who supported the law in question, ATRA arrives at its total of “more than 2.5 million” Florida voters who supported duly elected officials who supported the law.    

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