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Florida voters can’t strip down Obama health-care bill, judge rules

Florida was one of four states – along with Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado – with a ballot initiative this November to potentially override the health-care bill mandate that all Americans must have health insurance. But a Florida court said the ballot language was 'misleading.’

By Staff Writer / August 31, 2010

People opposed to the health care reform bill held signs and shouted slogans at the intersection of Military Trail and PGA Boulevard in March 2010.

Bruce R. Bennett/The Palm Beach Post/Newscom/File

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The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a ballot initiative that sought to amend the state’s constitution to establish that Florida residents have a right to refuse to purchase mandatory health insurance – including under President Obama’s reform effort.

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The state high court voted 5 to 2 to exclude the referendum issue from the November ballot.

The action is a victory for supporters of the Obama health reform program and a setback for opponents, including state lawyers leading an effort in federal court in the Florida panhandle to have the national health insurance program declared unconstitutional.

Florida was slated to be one of four states voting in November on constitutional amendments barring forced participation in a health insurance program. The three remaining states are Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado.

Missouri conducted a recent statewide vote posing the same question. It passed with 71 percent of the vote.

“The ballot language put forth … contains misleading and ambiguous language,” the Florida justices said. “Currently our only recourse is to strike the proposed constitutional amendment from the ballot.”

In a dissent, Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston said the court should resolve the case the same way it resolved a 2004 ballot question dispute.

The court rejected the disputed language in the ballot summary, but then ordered state officials to publish the full text of the amendment on the ballot instead.

“We should do likewise in the case now before us,” the chief justice wrote.

The five-justice majority rejected Justice Canady’s approach.

“If we were to place the entire text of the amendment on the ballot we would be ignoring the legislature’s explicit language that the ballot summary and title be placed on the ballot,” the majority said.

At issue was whether the summary of the ballot question as written by state lawmakers was inaccurate or confusing.

It read in part: “Proposing an amendment to the state constitution to ensure access to health care services without waiting lists, protect the doctor-patient relationship, guard against mandates that don’t work, prohibit laws or rules from compelling any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system…”

Four Florida voters filed a lawsuit challenging the language. A circuit judge found the ballot language misleading and ordered it off the ballot.

In an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, the Florida Secretary of State did not defend the language of the ballot initiative. State officials conceded the summary was misleading. Instead, they argued that the court should simply substitute the text of the amendment for the summary.

The majority justices refused, denouncing the ballot’s written text for containing “classic examples of a ballot summary ‘flying under false colors.' "

The adopted constitutional amendment nowhere addresses “waiting lists,” or the “doctor-patient relationship.” The justices added that the reference to “mandates that don’t work” was an apparent swipe at Mr. Obama’s health-care reform program. The justices said it was the “type of political rhetoric that this court has condemned in other cases.”

“The ballot summary should tell the voter the legal effect of the amendment and no more,” the court said.

Aside from the initiative process, six states have passed laws rejecting mandatory health care participation by state residents. Lawmakers in 26 states rejected similar laws.

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