Miami Judge References Harry Potter to Strike Down New "Stand Your Ground" Law

Miami Judge References Harry Potter to Strike Down New "Stand Your Ground" LawEXPAND
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Data shows Florida's Stand Your Ground law is awful. The rule lets you kill anyone you want in self-defense, even if you're the person who started a fight. In the years since the law went into effect, the state's murder rate has shot up dramatically. The law has been used to exonerate multiple cops who have shot unarmed people and, most notably, to let George Zimmerman walk free after following, harassing, and then fatally shooting unarmed Miami teen Trayvon Martin — a killing that later helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.

Weeks ago, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that actually makes it easier for people who've killed others to claim they were standing their ground.

But today, a Miami-Dade County Circuit Court judge ruled that new law unconstitutional — and dropped a reference to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the ruling while he was at it. Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch linked to a legal paper arguing that the Ministry of Magic, the governing body in J.K. Rowling's wizarding universe, suffers from some severe cases of judicial and executive overreach and perhaps did not give Harry Potter a fair trial in the series' fifth book.

The ruling in and of itself is narrow, does not apply to the rest of the state, and will likely be overturned in the Third District Court of Appeal, which tends to be more favorable to the state in cases like this one. But it's still an important decision for justice advocates, who opposed the bill when state Sen. Rob Bradley proposed it last December.

The new rule shifts the "burden of proof" for prosecutors. Previously, if someone tried to claim a stand-your-ground defense, they would have to prove their case to a jury. Now the opposite is true. Once you claim "stand your ground," it's presumed to be true unless a prosecutor can prove otherwise. Local attorneys warned this would make it extremely difficult to prosecute many murder cases, but the bill passed through the NRA-fueled Florida Legislature anyway.

Today Judge Hirsch ruled the law unconstitutional, writing in an order that under state law, only the Florida Supreme Court, not the Legislature, can make a change of that nature.

"As a matter of constitutional separation of powers, that procedure cannot be legislatively modified," Hirsch wrote.

But Hirsch has long been known for dropping scores of literary references in his orders. Miami Herald court reporter David Ovalle has long chronicled Hirsch's love for all things Shakespeare, especially Hamlet.

Hirsch wasn't able to find a way to name-drop the Bard this time around. But instead, he took a slightly more modern route, by linking to a legal paper on the separation of powers in J.K. Rowling's wizarding universe.

Late into the 14-page ruling, Hirsch offered a short lesson on the Founding Fathers' constitutional intentions when setting up the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. He quotes Federalist Paper number 48, in which James Madison warned that the legislative branch is "everywhere extending the sphere of its activity" and eroding the nation's systems of checks and balances.

Then, in a footnote, Hirsch gave readers a more contemporary (and more than slightly frivolous) reference: a paper published in the Hertfordshire Law Journal titled "Harry Potter and the Separation of Powers: A Law and Literature Review of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." The paper's opening summary argues that the main governing body in the Potter universe, the Ministry of Magic, is constitutionally flawed and suffers from some serious cases of judicial and executive overreach:

A nearly just society is influenced, if not governed, by the principle of the separation of powers. In J.K. Rowling’s series of books on Harry Potter the Ministry of Magic, the wizards governing body, is ignorant to the principle and because of this natural justice and the rule of law are threatened, however Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, repeatedly ensures that the outcome of the judicial process is just, albeit it through encouraging kidnap and escape, and illustrates that natural justice can only survive when the judicial function is subject to the separation doctrine. How J.K. Rowling deals with these issues is explored in this paper.

The bulk of the paper argues that Rowling's fictional wizard universe doesn't have a particularly fair or just court system. Through much of the Order of the Phoenix, Potter sits on trial at the Ministry of Magic in London. The paper's author argues that Cornelius Fudge, chair of the Wizengamot, the highest wizarding court in Britain, is "biased against Harry Potter:"

"The trial of Harry Potter shows that through the lack of a separation of powers in the wizards’ constitutional system, there is a distinct disregard for the rules of natural justice, traditionally applied to judicial decisions," the paper reads. "These rules are inherent to satisfy the well-known principle that ‘justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.’"

Throughout the paper, the author reminds readers that Fudge, the judge, spends his time discrediting witnesses, slandering Potter in the local wizarding newspaper, messing with Potter's hearing dates to ensure his witnesses cannot be called to testify, and even threatening to change the laws to ensure that Potter gets put in Azkaban, the wizarding jail guarded by hooded Dementors, whose mouths suck the souls out of victims.

"All of these issues show complete ignorance to the doctrine of the separation of powers," the paper's author argues. "Fudge is involved in the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive of the Ministry of Magic."

Sure, that's technically true. And the paper does a good job of explaining the basic concept of checks and balances to the sort of people who've never heard of such a thing before, like schoolchildren.

But the reference also comes across as a bit flippant, given the severity of the subject matter: Florida's Stand Your Ground law let Zimmerman murder a black child in 2012. It might be best for judges to focus on actual Florida law before we get too wrapped up in wizarding politics.

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