News Column

'Stand Your Ground' Law Not Likely to Be Reviewed in Florida

August 14, 2013

Proponents of a special session on Florida's "stand your ground" law are losing by a more than 2-to-1 margin along party lines in a legislative poll.

"No" votes are leading "yes" votes 55-25, according to results released Tuesday night by the Department of State. The deadline for legislators to vote is Monday.

At this rate, Democratic lawmakers seeking the special session may have won the battle but lost the war.

They were able to muster enough support to trigger the poll, but Tuesday's count suggests they won't reach the three-fifths supermajority needed out of all 159 sitting legislators.

Proponents still need at least 70 of the 79 outstanding votes to reach three-fifths, which is required under state law.

With Republican majorities in both chambers that think the law is fine as is, getting that supermajority was always a tall order.

"Three-fifths is a tough threshold," said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at University of South Florida and an expert on Florida politics.

Then again, just forcing a poll may be the moral victory proponents were looking for.

The drive was sparked by dozens of students and others who have occupied the Florida Capitol since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford.

Protesters have demanded that Gov. Rick Scott call lawmakers back to the capital to revisit the state's self-defense law and consider a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act. Scott refused their request.

"Stand your ground" allows people who are attacked to counter deadly force with deadly force in self-defense without any requirement that they flee.

Zimmerman did not invoke "stand your ground" to seek a dismissal of the charges against him, but provisions from the law were used in the instructions given to jurors.

By Monday night, more than 20 percent of the state Legislature -- 33 members -- had sent written requests to the Department of State asking for a special session.

That number met the statutory requirement for Secretary of State Ken Detzner to poll all lawmakers on whether a special session should be held.

With Rep. Mike Fasano's seat vacant, however, it's not clear whether that would require 95 or 96 votes. Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, resigned last week to accept Scott's appointment to Pasco County tax collector following the death of Mike Olson.

With 58 Democrats and 101 Republicans now in both chambers, 37 or 38 Republicans would have to join all of the Democrats to reach three-fifths. The 33 who wrote in are all Democrats.

The poll letter asks, "Should a special session of the Florida Legislature be convened for the general purpose of addressing Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law?"

If three-fifths vote for a session, it has to begin no later than Sept. 2. The legislature's first committee week starts Sept. 23, and the 2014 regular session starts March 4.

A special session can be called by the governor, by the House speaker and senate president in joint proclamation, or by a legislative poll.

Provisions for a special session date back to Florida's 1885 constitution, but a special session has never been convened by a legislative poll.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, may have presaged the outcome.

"Once this poll concludes, the question of a special session will be final," he said in an email. "I trust our protesters will accept the results and return the Capitol back to normal business. It's time."

Weatherford previously said his chamber will hold a hearing this fall on the self-defense law, saying its value and effectiveness should be reviewed.

But Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Fort Walton Beach Republican who will chair that hearing, says he doesn't support changing the law.

If a special session is called, don't expect much level-minded oratory, MacManus suggests, in part because the state votes either red or blue depending on the candidate or question.

"Anybody who doubts this will become highly politicized doesn't know politics in a purple state," she said.

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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