Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Feb. 9

Orlando Sentinel on not injecting more politics into Florida's process for picking judges:

Now that Florida legislators are meeting in Tallahassee for their annual 60-day session, and anticipation is building over which bills might pass and be signed into law by the governor, the spotlight is on those two branches of government. But the third, the courts, is a co-equal branch — though legislators keep trying to turn it into a twig.

Unlike the legislative and executive branches, the judiciary is supposed to be insulated from politics. It's also supposed to serve as a check on the power of the other two branches. It has done so several times in recent years by striking down laws and policies as unconstitutional, much to the consternation of legislators and the governor, who would prefer a rubber stamp for their actions.

So over the past decade or so, legislators have made a habit of pushing proposals to assert more control over the judiciary and politicize it. They're at it again this year. They need to be stopped.

Bills proposed in the Senate and House would, for the first time, hand a role in choosing judges to the presiding officers in both chambers — the most powerful politicians in the state next to the governor. The bills also would either eliminate or marginalize the role of The Florida Bar, the nonpartisan professional organization that represents all the lawyers licensed to practice in the state.

Under current law, Florida governors fill trial court vacancies between elections, and open seats on the state's appellate courts, by choosing from lists of nominees whose qualifications are vetted by commissions. There's a commission for each of the state's judicial circuits and districts, as well as the Supreme Court. The nine members on each commission are appointed by the governor, but he picks four of the members from lists submitted by the Bar.

The Bar's current president, Michael Higer, said his organization draws on its considerable legal expertise to recommend a diverse pool of highly qualified candidates for each commission opening. The Bar doesn't probe or consider political leanings of its candidates, Higer said.

But under Senate Bill 1030, the Senate president and the House speaker would replace the Bar in submitting recommendations to the governor for four commission appointments. In fact, there is no provision in the Senate bill for any input at all from the Bar on appointments.

And under House Bill 753, the president and speaker would make two commission appointments each. Like the governor under current law, the presiding officers would receive recommendations for their appointments from the Bar. However, they would not be under any legal obligation to choose from the Bar's list.

The inevitable consequence of either bill — more politically oriented judicial nominating commissions — would lead to more politically oriented judges. Those judges would still owe their appointments directly to the governor, but now they also would owe them indirectly to the president and the speaker.

This is just the latest attack on judicial independence from legislators. In prior years, they called for slapping term limits on judges, making it easier for voters to unseat them, giving the governor complete control over appointments, and subjecting Supreme Court appointments to Senate confirmation. Fortunately for Florida and the integrity of its constitutional system of checks and balances, all of these proposals failed.

SB 1030 has yet to be taken up in the Senate, but HB 753 has cleared its first House committee. There's still a risk that either could win passage before the session ends next month — unless they are defeated by legislators who are committed to an apolitical, independent judiciary.

Online: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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Feb. 13

Ocala Star Banner on first responders needing mental health support:

Americans in recent years have become more aware of the high number of suicides and post-traumatic stress among our military members. It is a good sign that the nation is finally seeing the reality of mental illness in all of its devastating forms.

Now comes a related example regarding our first responders in Florida.

. More than 15 percent of firefighters reported having made at least one suicide attempt during their service compared to just 2 percent of the general population, according to a 2015 Florida State University study.

. And a startling 46 percent of firefighters reported having thought about suicide compared to just 5 percent of the population.

. More first responders die by suicide than in die in the line of work.

And it's likely that first responders may underreport mental health conditions, influenced by stigma or perceived weakness.

This is likely to get worse as firefighters and emergency medical technicians are being called to record numbers of overdose cases.

These statistics have led Jimmy Patronis, Florida's chief financial officer, to support legislation that would make mental health benefits more accessible and affordable for first responders.

Patronis, by the way, also is the state's fire marshal. The department provides training, education and services. So it is only natural that he would be one of the first to learn of the high rate of suicide and mental illness among first responders.

Senate Bill 376 revises workers compensation standards for determining health benefits for job-related mental and nervous injuries of law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and first responders.

The bill is intended to increase the likelihood that first responders will qualify for workers' compensation.

The current law, according to a legislative analysis, requires that a mental or nervous injury must be accompanied by a physical injury requiring medical treatment to qualify for workers' compensation. That is a ridiculous standard that shows a blatant disregard for the dangers of mental illness. It also shows how backward much of society is regarding illnesses of the mind.

Under the bill, the presence of mental illness would be verified by a licensed psychiatrist using the criteria for PTSD established by the American Psychiatric Association.

"PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war, combat, rape or other violent personal assault," according to the American Psychiatric Association.

It is estimated that 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics have PTSD, according to a 2016 report.

Imagine encountering the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. One police officer was diagnosed with PTSD and has been out of work since the shooting. Though the city of Orlando has been paying his full salary, he is not covered under Florida's workers' compensation law because his PTSD was not accompanied by a physical injury.

The bill thus far has been moving successfully through the Legislature.

As for the cost, firefighters represent just 6 percent of all local government employees.

The risk of job-related mental illness must be considered a real and threatening part of being a first responder in Florida. It's a cost that needs to be factored into the job by a grateful public.

Online: http://www.ocala.com/

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Feb. 13

The Herald-Tribune of Sarasota on why a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune should be in the National Statuary Hall:

The Florida Legislature is on the verge of making a change that won't resolve the state's worst problems. Nevertheless, it's important for the state House of Representatives to do what the Senate has done and pass a bill to place a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune in the National Statuary Hall.

Doing so would right a longstanding wrong, bring welcome attention to Bethune and elevate her status among Floridians, as well as the legions of Americans who visit the hall in Washington, D.C.

Each state has two statues in the hall, located in the U.S. Capitol. The honorees are chosen by each state's legislature: Many of them are well-known figures — Samuel Adams, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Will Rogers, George Washington — while others have obscure identities.

Florida's representatives in the hall fall into the latter category.

. John Gorrie moved to Apalachicola after training in New York to be a physician. In the 19th century, he suspended basins filled with ice blocks — transported to Florida from northern lakes — in order to chill the sickrooms of fever-stricken patients. He later earned a patent to create an ice machine; the concept led to air conditioning.

. Edmund Kirby Smith was born in St. Augustine in 1824. At 21, he departed to attend the U.S. Military Academy. He fought gallantly for the United States in the Mexican American War but, in 1861, betrayed his nation by resigning from the Army and joining the Confederate forces. He surrendered the last military force of the Confederacy, which apparently was enough in 1922 for Florida to send his statue to the hall.

Three years ago, as Americans reassessed tributes to Confederates, a movement appropriately began to replace Smith's statue. The Florida Department of State solicited nominees from the public, and Bethune by far received the most mentions. She then received support from a special selection committee.

During its current session, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill calling for Bethune to replace Smith (whose likeness would be returned to Florida and placed elsewhere). A companion bill in the House of Representatives, where similar legislation stalled last year, has had its first of three required readings — meaning that passage could be near.

Only four statues in the Capitol hall have been replaced; this change is significant, and warranted.

Bethune's story is incredible: She was born on a South Carolina farm in 1875, the 15th child of former slaves. Bethune worked in the fields until she was 10 and enrolled in a one-room school, where she learned to read — an achievement, she later said, that opened the world to her.

As an adult, Bethune attended seminary, then moved to Florida, where in 1904 she founded a five-girl school that grew exponentially until it finally became Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black institution.

Bethune was a national leader in the civil rights movement and an adviser to U.S. presidents and the military. Known as the First Lady of Struggle, until her death in 1955 Bethune was one of the most influential African-Americans of the 20th century.

Online: http://www.heraldtribune.com/