The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a legal fight about whether voters should cast ballots in November on a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at ending greyhound racing at pari-mutuel facilities.
The hearing came after Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers this month sided with the Florida Greyhound Association, a group of breeders, owners and trainers, and ruled that the proposal should not go on the ballot because it was misleading. The state appealed Gievers’ ruling, setting up the Supreme Court arguments little more than two months before the Nov. 6 general election.
Jordan Pratt, a state deputy solicitor general, disputed that the proposal is misleading and urged justices to overturn Gievers’ decision. Backers of the measure, known as Amendment 13, sat in part of the courtroom listening to the arguments and said afterward that the measure should go before voters.
“This amendment should go and be voted upon,” said Stephen Turner of the pro-amendment Committee to Protect Dogs. “It’s clear that the people have a right to choose whether they want a gambling activity of greyhound racing, which is cruel to animals, to continue. It’s that simple.”
But former Supreme Court Justice Major Harding, representing the Florida Greyhound Association, told the court that the ballot title and summary — the wording that voters see when they go to the polls — did not properly disclose information about the effects of the amendment. Harding and Jack Cory, a lobbyist for the association, said that means the proposal should be kept off the ballot.
“The vague ballot language and the vague title do not disclose everything to the people of the state of Florida that’s included in the proposed amendment,” Cory said after the hearing.
The Florida Constitution Revision Commission this spring placed the proposed dog-racing ban on the November ballot after years of legislative debates about the future of greyhound racing in the state. The 37-member commission has unique authority to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot, but its proposals this year have faced a series of legal challenges.
The Supreme Court is focused on the wording of the ballot title and summary to make sure they accurately reflect the effects of the proposal. Gievers’ ruling cited a series of problems with the wording, describing the proposed amendment as “misleading and inaccurate and incomplete, while adding up to a ‘hide the ball,’ ‘fly a false flag’ and outright ‘trickeration,’ ”
The ballot title and summary say: “ENDS DOG RACING. — Phases out commercial dog racing in connection with wagering by 2020. Other gaming activities are not affected.”
But a major point of discussion during Wednesday’s arguments was part of the broader text of the proposed amendment that says, “The humane treatment of animals is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida.”
Harding said the ballot title and summary fail to disclose that the amendment would make the humane treatment of animals a “fundamental value.” As a result, he said, voters would not be informed that the provision is included in the potential constitutional changes.
“The people will not know that they are incorporating that in the Constitution if it is not in the ballot title and the summary, because that is all that is on the ballot,” Harding said.
But some justices questioned that argument. For example, Justice Alan Lawson questioned what the legal effect of the “fundamental value” part of the amendment would be. Even if it passed, he said lawmakers would have to take some action to give it legal effect.
“If you can’t identify a legal effect, then it sounds like political rhetoric, it’s just a fluff label,” Lawson said. “And we have cases that say you can’t put political rhetoric on a ballot summary. So, I think that if they had put it on (the ballot summary), your argument would be that it has no legal effect and it’s political rhetoric and it should come off.”
It was not immediately clear how soon justices could rule in the case. But general-election ballots will begin to be sent out to voters in September.