These pages have featured the doctrine of stare decisis, a legacy of our English roots and the common law system that underpins our American judicial process. Literal translations are "to stand on the decisions" or "let the decision stand." This is an ingrained foundation that brings predictability and thereby stability to our legal system, and thus to our society generally. It is upon lawyers' interpretation of what courts have done that predictions and recommendations are made regarding what courts may do in the future.
The Florida Supreme Court on January 23, 2020 rendered an opinion in State of Florida v. Poole, No. SC18-245, in which it reversed a relatively recent precedent. This is a lesson or reminder in stare decisis, and perhaps broader implications. There is little doubt that there will be discussions of the Poole conclusions in various legal circles that are engaged in the death penalty, as that is the substantive focus. There is likelihood of classroom discussion in broader contexts regarding the stare decisis foundation and the Court's recession from earlier authority.
By this point Statler and Waldorf are perhaps asking: "what does this have to do with workers' compensation?" I am persistently surprised when even seasoned lawyers sometimes forget that workers' compensation is (in part) a judicial system in which quasi-judicial decisions are made, laws are interpreted, and stare decisis is critical. Predictability and evolution are as fundamental to this particular adjudicatory system as they are to any. Workers' compensation touches the law in broad contexts, and likewise the broad foundations of law are critical foundations to workers' compensation.
Though the Florida Supreme Court rarely decides a workers' compensation case, it does occur. Frequent readers may recall The Supreme Court Declines Review of Padgett; Padgett, a case known by several names, was a direct challenge to the constitutionality of Florida workers' compensation. There may be those who remember the Court similarly declining to hear the challenges in Brock and Hector; there was even effort thereafter to have the Supreme Court of the United States review the Florida workers' compensation statute in that context.
Everyone involved in Florida workers' compensation is familiar with the imaginative decision of the Florida Court in Castellanos. The Court's sua sponte (or spontaneous) adoption of the Daubert evidentiary standard in 2019 brought clarity to Florida's courts, and perhaps squelched an academic debate regarding expert testimony in workers' compensation. Some will remember cases like Aguilera v. Inservices, Inc., 905 So.2d 84 (Fla. 2005) and its ripples through the insurance and employer communities. And, of course, there were implications and clarity brought to the community by the 2004 decision in Amendments to the Florida Rules of Workers' Compensation Procedure, 891 So. 2d 474 (Fla. 2004). Though rare, the Court does impact this community periodically.
Notably, in that last example, the Court had a long history of promulgating Comp procedural rules dating to 1973. Amendments provides in-depth discussion of the involvement of the Florida Legislature, delegation of constitutional authority, and precedent built case upon case in the periodic adoption of procedural rules for over 30 years. Amendments, however, enunciated the conclusion:
"this Court has no authority under the Florida Constitution, nor has this Court ever had the constitutional authority to promulgate rules of practice and procedure for this executive entity." Amendments., at 478.
In effect, the Court there concluded it had acted without authority and it declined to proceed in doing so thereafter. It admitted it had been long and repeatedly wrong. Precedent was disregarded, upon the conclusion it was ill founded.
Returning to the present, the Court recently considered State of Florida v. Poole, No. SC18-245 (January 23, 2020). At issue was the process by which decisions are made regarding imposition of Florida's death penalty. It will be for that reason that the case may attract news coverage. The decision link is provided above, but the reader is warned that the factual details recited by the Court may be disconcerting or disturbing. The defendant was sentenced to death for his actions, and took issues with the procedure.
The Court explained that "from 1973 until 2016" there was a framework for considering such sentences (it is an odd coincidence that 1973 similarly marked the first adoption of Court rules for workers' compensation). This "penalty phase" begins with a proceeding in which evidence is heard of the "nature of the crime and the character of the defendant." There may be presentation of "statutory aggravating and mitigating circumstances." and such a sentence is based on whether such circumstances do or do not exist. The fulcrum of the Poole debate is how jury and judge interact in deciding the existence of those circumstances. The Court noted that the United States "Supreme Court itself (has) considered and rejected Sixth and Eighth Amendment challenges to" that process.
The Court explained various Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decisions, and the intriguing evolution of death penalty consideration. That itself illustrates that the law has experienced change in reaching its current state. Lawyers have argued, and change has occurred. The Florida Court noted that ultimately the SCOTUS concluded:
“If a State makes an increase in a defendant's authorized punishment contingent on a finding of fact, that fact - no matter how the State labels it - must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Thus, a judge, alone, may not make such a finding of aggravation, in rendering this sentence.
In Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016), "the (Florida) Supreme Court addressed the significance of" that analysis on "the constitutionality of Florida's capital sentencing procedure." The Court in Hurst concluded that the Florida law "which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance" was unconstitutional. Therefore a "new rule" was announced by the Court:
"before the trial judge may consider imposing a sentence of death, the jury in a capital case must unanimously and expressly find all the aggravating factors that were proven beyond a reasonable doubt, unanimously find that the aggravating factors are sufficient to impose death, unanimously find that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, and unanimously recommend a sentence of death."
In Poole, the Court concluded "our Court was wrong in Hurst v. State." It said:
"this Court clearly erred in Hurst v. State by requiring that the jury make any finding beyond the section 921.141(3)(a) eligibility finding of one or more statutory aggravating circumstances. Neither Hurst v. Florida, nor the Sixth or Eighth Amendment, nor the Florida Constitution mandates that the jury make the section 941.121(3)(b) selection finding or that the jury recommend a sentence of death."
There are those who would argue that there is merit in owning an error. The Court explained that stare decisis is important. But the Court must be "willing to correct its mistakes." Therefore, “[t]he doctrine of stare decisis bends . . . where there has been an error in legal analysis.” (citation omitted). Admittedly, "it is no small matter for one Court to conclude that a predecessor Court has clearly erred." The Court concluded that in 2016 it had misapplied "a narrow and predictable ruling" and "disregard(ed) decades of settled Supreme Court and Florida precedent" in deciding Hurst.
Thus, the Court explained the Hurst decision was a failure of stare decisis; one which created new rules for the adjudication of such cases. The Court in Hurst did not follow the precedents, its own prior decisions. Thus, the Court essentially concluded in 2020, that following the misplaced Hurst further would be error. To give that decision the respect of stare decisis would be to compound the error that it created.
The Court was similarly critical of its decision in North Florida Women's Health & Counseling Services, Inc. v. State, 866 So. 2d 612 (Fla. 2003). That decision and its analysis of the why and how of overruling prior precedent was urged by Poole in arguing to retain the Hurst analysis. But the Court noted that the reversal considerations listed in that opinion were accompanied by "no citation to support its compilation." In other words, those considerations are perhaps of questionable origin. The Court did not go as far as saying they were imaginative or creative, but noted they had no precedent. Furthermore, the Court concluded that such "multi-factor stare decisis tests or frameworks" are "malleable and do not lend themselves to objective, consistent, and predictable application." The application of them could lead to decisions that are not "principled."
The Court concluded that the "proper approach to stare decisis is much more straightforward." Of course, where higher legal authority is binding, the Courts' "job is to apply that law correctly to the case before us." But, "when we are convinced that a precedent clearly conflicts with the law we are sworn to uphold, precedent normally must yield." That is, when an error has occurred such as Hurst, it is necessary, beyond appropriate, that stare decisis not blindly compound and amplify that error. Thus in deciding whether to follow prior decisions, the Court will look to the logic, reason, and precedent for such prior decisions.
Interestingly, the Court noted that "stare decisis has consequence only to the extent it sustains incorrect decisions; correct judgments have no need for that principle to prop them up.” Thus, when the Court concludes that prior a decision(s) is "clearly erroneous, the proper question becomes whether there is a valid reason why not to recede from that precedent." The critical point, it seems is what type of case is being considered when this balance of predictability and correction come to the fore. The Court noted that reliance upon such decision(s) is broadly critical, but more important in cases of "property and contract rights” than in cases of "procedural and evidentiary rules.” Thus, whether poorly reasoned precedent is abandoned or maintained may be a function of the type of law interpreted (or created?). In some instances stability may militate toward reinforcement of bad law.
The Poole decision acknowledges that Florida's legislature responded to Hurst and made statutory change. The Court specified that Poole is neither criticism nor endorsement of those legislative actions. It clarified instead that Poole is simply the restoration of the "discretion that Hurst v. State wrongly took from the political branches." Though not announced as such by the Court's introduction to Poole, this decision is thus largely a separation of powers decision, not dissimilar in that regard to Amendments, supra. The Court has concluded that the error of Hurst, in lacking legal foundation, inappropriately invaded the province of the legislature.
That issue is the subject of the composite of the Poole decision. Four justices of five concurred in the Poole decision. It is noteworthy for the sake of history that Florida's Court is composed of seven Justices. However, currently two vacancies exist following the appointment of two Justices to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal in 2019. Justice LaBarga dissented in Poole with a written decision. Justice Lawson specially concurred with a written opinion responding to the dissent criticisms. Both are worthy reading. Some will perhaps see therein hints of a difference of opinion regarding the appropriate separation of powers as between a Court interpreting and a representative body legislating. There are also differences of opinion as to precedent and stare decisis specifically.
The decision has implications for those who stand accused of capital crime. In those settings, Poole will find citation and argument. My brief experience with death penalty litigation was both enlightening and frustrating. The stakes are high and the advocates on both sides are among the most intelligent and resourceful I have encountered. It is a difficult and challenging area of practice.
But, in deference to Statler and Waldorf, I return to workers' compensation. There continues in this county a "grand debate" about the "grand bargain" that is workers' compensation. Are benefits sufficient? Should sufficiency be a "system" analysis, or is it "personal" and individual? Is the process afforded appropriate? How does evolution of tort law (the system Comp supplanted) enter that analysis? The list goes on. There have been a fair volume of constitutional challenges to workers' compensation in state courts in Florida. Will that trend continue? Will there be a tendency therein to remain true to precedential decisions, or is it possible that in workers' compensation there might be coming court admissions of having "clearly erred," and therefore a court being "willing to correct its mistakes?"
Whether one's perspective is of reliance upon Florida Court precedent or is of imaginative argument in opposition in such a challenge, the Poole decision is informative. How and when predictability of stare decisis may prevail against the imaginative or innovative challenge is worthy of any litigant's consideration and analysis. Workers' compensation may not be as grave as the criminal death penalty. However, it literally permeates the world of work for millions of Floridians. It is a critical lynch-pin of the employer/employee relationship. Its stability and continuity are foundational to lives and livelihoods. Its importance cannot be overstated, and should not be misunderstood.
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