The Florida Secretary of State’s office will begin polling members of the Legislature to find out if there is enough support to hold a special session to decide the fate of the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law.
Vastly outnumbered Democrats have a week to convince enough Republicans lawmakers to support the special session.
House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, announced late Monday that Democrats had gathered the 32 written requests necessary to trigger a poll of lawmakers. If three-fifths of the Legislature agrees — something that would require a total of 96 lawmakers to go along — the House and Senate would return to Tallahassee to debate the law.
“I commend those members who have joined me in my request for a special session,” Thurston said in a statement issued by his office. “While the House speaker has indicated that the Legislature may hold a hearing later this year on certain policies, including stand your ground, I strongly believe that a special session is the best way to justly address the concerns of our constituents.”
Legislators will now be sent a poll from the state agency that they have until 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 19, to sign and return. The proposal is an effort to circumvent the opposition to a special session by Scott and Republican legislative leaders.
The process, allowed in state statutes, has never been used before to call a special session.
The poll was hailed by the Dream Defenders, the Hialeah-based group that has staged an around-the-clock protest since July 16 against the law, which grants legal immunity to people who use deadly force if they reasonably believe their lives are in danger.
“Because of this poll, we will be able to see where each of our legislators stand on having the special session that the [people] are demanding,” the organization tweeted Monday.
The group began its sit-in at Gov. Rick Scott’s office after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. While Zimmerman’s defense team did not use the “stand your ground” law, Martin’s death drew nationwide attention to the policy.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has directed a subcommittee to hold a hearing on the law this fall, said Monday that he hoped both sides will accept the results.
“Once this poll concludes, the question of a special session will be final,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said in an email. “I trust our protesters will accept the results and return the Capitol back to normal business. It’s time.”
Thirty-three of the state’s 58 Democratic lawmakers have filed petitions with the Florida Department of State requesting a special session on “stand your ground.” But even if every Democrat in the Legislature were to support a session — no sure bet given a few rural or moderate members of the caucus — another 38 Republicans would still have to back the idea.
Most Republicans have resisted changing the law. While Weatherford announced a hearing on the self-defense law, House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, has vowed not to change “one damn comma.”
Meanwhile, in a sign of the resistance to changing the law in Florida, three Republicans signed on to a letter slamming U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., for asking corporate sponsors of a conservative organization whether they support the law. Some liberals blame the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, for the spread of “stand your ground” laws across the nation.
“The contents of your letter are eerily similar to the questions asked by the Internal Revenue Service of other citizen groups the IRS deemed as politically conservative,” the letter says. “Questions such as the individual donors, purposes of organizational events and contents of meetings are clearly a violation of the First and Tenth Amendments and the general jurisdiction of a federal office holder.”
The letter was signed by state Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, and Sens. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, and Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. In all, ALEC said, “nearly 300 state legislators” from across the country signed the letter.
–By Brandon Larrabee and Jim Turner, News Service of Florida