ACLU reviews the Florida record: Jeb Bush is no ‘moderate’

The Wisconsin Gazette

Jeb Bush officially announced his candidacy for president this week, prompting civil rights groups to stress that Bush’s record as Florida’s governor is not that of a moderate.

“History should not be rewritten about his record on civil rights and civil liberties during his two terms as Florida governor,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

“Some have put forth a narrative portraying Jeb Bush as having governed as a moderate and it may be politically expedient for him to allow that image to thrive. But Floridians who lived through his governorship know that he governed more ideologically and more extremely than moderately — sometimes ignoring public opinion, sometimes ignoring constitutional principles, all in order to pursue a decidedly not moderate policy agenda.”

Simon pointed to five actions by Bush as examples of his style of leadership:

• The “Scarlet Letter” Law: In allowing the infamous “Scarlet Letter” Law to go into effect, Bush ignored Florida’s state constitutional right of privacy and allowed the Legislature to require Florida women placing a child for adoption with a private adoption agency to publish a notice in local newspapers about their sexual history.

The notice was to contain information about the mother’s age, race, hair and eye color, approximate height and weight, any person the mother reasonably believes may be the father and the date and city in which the act of conception might have occurred.

The ACLU challenged the law and argued the case in court. 

The courts struck down the law. 

Bush then signed a repeal of the statute.

• Assigned attorneys for the fetus of a disabled rape victim but not for the victim: When a developmentally disabled woman who was a resident of a state-run group home in Orlando was raped and impregnated by a member of the staff of the facility, Bush sent attorneys from the state Department of Children and Family Services to court to request that the court appoint a guardian for the fetus. 

The tactic was designed to use the court process so that it would be too late to perform an abortion.

The ACLU argued the case against the motion filed by DCF attorneys and the court rejected to the motion for the appointment of a guardian for the fetus.

• State funding of religious schools and a fight to remove constitutional protections against government entanglement with religion: In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down Bush’s signature education reform measure, the “Opportunity Scholarship Program” school voucher program. 

The program, the centerpiece of his 1998 campaign for governor and enacted in his first year in office, used state funds to pay tuition for public school students to attend church-run sectarian schools. 

The ACLU was part of a coalition of public education and civil liberties groups that filed suit challenging the program as a violation of two state constitutional provisions: the prohibition on direct or indirect aid to religious institutions and the requirement that the state fund a uniform system of public education.

Bush ignored both constitutional provisions.

Though the Florida Supreme Court used only the later provision to strike down the voucher program, thereby not needing to rule on a “no aid” violation, Bush nevertheless asked the Legislature to propose a constitutional amendment to strip the “no aid to religious institutions” provision from the state constitution. 

In a dramatic and narrow vote, the Republican-controlled Florida State Senate declined Bush’s request to place a repeal of state constitutional church-state separation on the ballot.

• The Terri Schiavo case: Bush attempted to use the machinery of state government and then, through a special law enacted by Congress and signed by President George Bush, the machinery of the federal government and federal courts to intrude into an intensely private family tragedy.

ACLU attorneys were the legal team which, on behalf of husband Michael Schiavo, successfully challenged both the state law and the federal law that Bush used as the legal basis for his personal intervention. 

Bush’s efforts to intervene in this matter included sending state police to seize Terri Schiavo and transport her to a facility where a feeding tube would be reinserted — in violation of six years of proceedings in the Pinellas County courts that had determined the Terri Schiavo did not wish to be sustained artificially and indefinitely in a vegetative state.

• Defending a Civil War era racist election system: Bush defended Florida’s Civil War era system of lifetime felon disfranchisement under which the right to vote is taken away from more citizens in Florida than in any other state in the country.

In a 2002 federal lawsuit, Johnson v. Bush, the governor and his attorneys defended Florida’s system of lifetime felon disfranchisement against charges of racial discrimination.

The governor ignored historical evidence that, with the extension of the franchise to the freed slaves following the Civil War, the system of lifetime felon disfranchisement was designed by the post-Confederacy 1868 Constitutional Convention to take the vote away from as many of the freed slaves as possible — largely because in some parts of the state freed slaves outnumbered whites. 

Simon said, “From publicly shaming Florida women for their private lives to attempting to smash the protection against government entanglement with religion, to inviting himself — and the world — into a family tragedy, Gov. Bush saw his office as a license to use the power of government to enact his will and his own personal morality on the private lives of Florida citizens.

“He was and remains insensitive to the obligation of government to sometimes ‘stay its hand’ out of respect for the great religious diversity of our country.  His recent speech at Liberty University echoed themes seen during his two terms as Florida governor, when he showed little appreciation for the fact that government policies should not impose the views of one religious tradition on people of a different faith tradition.

“As he prepares to run for higher office, Jeb Bush may want to present himself to the nation’s electorate as a moderate. Those of us who fought for civil rights and civil liberties during his tenure in Florida know better.”