Rare Kudos to Governor Scott

May 1, 2016 by

There was a lot of speculation on what action Florida Gov. Rick Scott would take on the Alimony Bill (SB668). The legislation was one of the most contentious and divisive of the 2016 legislative session.

It was the last bill to reach the governor’s desk—starting the 15-day clock on his decision to sign, let it become law without his signature, or veto.

Spoiler alert—he vetoed it.

It’s not the first time he had to deal with the issue. A similar bill passed both chambers—the state House and Senate—in 2013 as Scott’s first term was ending and he sought re-election. That version of the bill was strictly alimony reform and contained what he and many in the legal community considered a major flaw.

The changes in the 2013 bill could have retroactively altered existing divorce and alimony settlements. Gov. Scott vetoed it and suggested a future attempt at alimony reform should not be retroactive.

Subsequent efforts at major alimony reform didn’t make it to his desk until this year. The sponsors, state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and state Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, heeded Scott’s advice in crafting the bill by prospectively applying the changes.

There were other changes as well—some good, some bad, depending on what side you’re on in the debate.

The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar—attorneys who have the most knowledge and experience in divorce, alimony and child custody matters—opposed the 2013 bill and actively participated in the 2016 legislation.

The sponsors and Family Law attorneys worked together on a consensus bill. The legislation would have replaced permanent alimony with a system based on spouses’ incomes and would be awarded for a duration based on the length of the marriage.

Had their agreed-upon bill language moved forward unaltered, both sides would have been OK with the compromise and Scott most likely would have signed it.

The major change—which became the poison pill—would have created a new legal premise that both parents should have equal time in the custody of their children. This child custody issue would certainly have had an impact on the financial considerations of child support.

It’s probably true that there are injustices in the alimony law; that it is outdated and doesn’t take into account changes in our society, longevity and wage earner status.

Changes in the law might be necessary, but they should be based on what’s in the best interest of the child. Not all parents are equally prepared or willing to nurture a child in a safe and loving environment.

Sometimes the judge has to make tough decisions. That’s why judges should have the discretion to base their decisions on the individual and unique circumstances of each case.

Historically, bad outcomes have occurred when we removed judicial discretion. Didn’t we learn from the unintended consequences that mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes legislation have had on our criminal justice system?

Judges should not be hamstrung in their decision-making by the insertion of faulty premises in the law.

Former Circuit Court Judge Robert Doyle, who has handled many divorce cases, actively opposed the bill, arguing that “this bill is bad for kids, it’s bad for women and it’s bad for Florida.”

Making major changes to how financial support is determined for families that have split would have a profound effect on so many lives.

The debate stirred tremendous emotional public reaction on both sides. A throng of at least a hundred supporters and opponents clashed in the state Capitol in and around the Governor’s Office, with each side trying to influence Scott’s decision. It quickly escalated with an exchange of angry and heated rhetoric.

The Family Law Reform group, a grassroots organization, led the effort to support the bill. The opposition came from the National Organization for Women, the League of Women Voters and the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar.

Scott’s office received nearly 10,000 requests to sign the bill and roughly 3,000 to veto it.

It would have been much easier for Scott to sign the bill—pleasing most of the Republican legislators who passed it—but he didn’t choose the politically easy option.

In his veto message, Scott wrote:

“Current law directs a judge to consider the needs and interests of the children first when determining a parenting plan and time-sharing schedule. This bill has the potential to up-end that policy in favor of putting the wants of a parent before the child’s best interest by creating a premise of equal time-sharing.”

Kudos to him.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.



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