[ OP-ED COLUMN ]

Fla. Legal Bill: $475 per Hour per Lawyer


Published: Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 12:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 at 11:40 p.m.

The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott do not realize that they can't do anything they want.

The Florida Constitution limits what they can do.

By their actions, that's hard to tell.

Tuesday, a circuit court judge in Leon County ruled that Florida unconstitutionally breached its contracts with state workers. It did so by requiring the workers to contribute 3 percent of their pay to their pensions. In effect, the state cut their salaries by 3 percent.

"The 2011 Legislature, when faced with a budget shortfall, turned to the employees of the state of Florida and ignored the contractual rights given to them by the Legislature in 1974,'' ruled Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford. In part, she relied on a 1981 state Supreme Court ruling in favor of public employees, The Ledger's Lloyd Dunkelberger reported for an article Wednesday.

The state's failure to renegotiate the salaries, rather than changing them unilaterally, was an "unconstitutional taking of private property without full compensation," Fulford wrote. It breached workers' right "to collectively bargain over conditions of employment."

Because the ruling was made in circuit court, it may be challenged. Scott has vowed a "swift appeal."

He said, "As you would expect, I believe this decision is simply wrong."

Here's what is simply wrong: The state paid the Atlanta law firm Alston & Bird $500,000 to defend against the state workers' lawsuit in circuit court. Florida paid four partners and four associates of the law firm at the rate of $475 per hour for each lawyer.

So it's no surprise that the state burned through a half million dollars in this case — not at four hundred seventy-five dollars per hour for each of eight lawyers.

The hourly rate is about $300 per hour more than state contracts with other lawyers, reported The Miami Herald.

To head off to appeal court, the state has contracted with Alston & Bird for $300,000 more — at four hundred seventy-five dollars per hour for each of eight lawyers.

That's a total of $800,000.

If the appeal court ruling results in a subsequent appeal that is taken up by the Florida Supreme Court, the total state-of-Florida payout to the out-of-state Alston & Bird would be $1.1 million. That's assuming the need for another $300,000 — at four hundred seventy-five dollars per hour for each of eight lawyers.

Of course, that's at the standard rate. Let's hope Alston & Bird doesn't have a "supreme" rate.

In any case, it would be more than the $1 million that Scott and the Legislature were trying to save by shorting the state workers' pay via the forced pension contribution.

Those big figures compound quickly. The state would owe Alston & Bird $1.1 million or more — at four hundred seventy-five dollars per hour for each of eight lawyers — and it would owe the workers $1 billion in back pay, plus interest, and the state budget would be short at least $1 billion for the fiscal year that starts in July.

State leaders said Fulford decided on her own, not on the basis of law, that the pay cut was unconstitutional.

Scott said the ruling is "another example of a court substituting its own policy preferences for those of the Legislature."

State Senate President Mike Haridopolos said, "I think this is an example of judicial activism, and this is why we are immediately going to appeal this decision."

If only they would take a look at the Florida Constitution. The section immediately after the preamble is the Declaration of Rights.

The sixth declaration is the Right to Work. Within that right is this sentence: "The right of employees, by and through a labor organization, to bargain collectively shall not be denied or abridged."

While they're reading, here's a bit of arithmetic: If all eight $475-per-hour lawyers work at the same time, Alston & Bird's rate is $3,800 an hour. An eight-hour day's work for all eight lawyers is $30,400.

Four hundred seventy-five dollars per hour for each of eight lawyers adds up quickly. That makes the constitution a worthwhile read.

[ Glenn Marston is editorial page editor. E-mail: glenn.marston@theledger.com. Phone: 863-802-7600. ]

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