Thursday, May 10, 2012

Florida Supremes uphold constitutionality of county term limits

It's unanimous. Yesterday morning the Supreme Court of Florida announced its decision, upholding the 2011 4th District Court of Appeals decision that county commission term limits are indeed constitutional in Florida.

The decision was expected, but nonetheless it is great news that instantly sweeps the state clean of sham lawsuits (Polk) and deceitful repeal referenda (Sarasota) from desperate politicians trying to cling to power.

The most startling aspect of the decision is that the court not only affirmed the existing right of charter counties to enact term limits, but also receded from a prior decision that denied counties the right to term limit constitutional officers such as the supervisor of elections and tax collector.

The decision affects the 20 Florida counties that have adopted "home rule" charters. These include the biggest counties, such as Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. In these counties, citizens are allowed -- via referenda -- to customize their county governments. Ten of the 20 have chosen to enact term limits on their county commissions.

Politicians naturally chafed under the restriction and sued or otherwise tried to thwart the people's term limits in several counties, most notably Broward and Sarasota. In Sarasota, the most egregious case, politicians had successfully used the courts to keep term limits at bay but in all other cases the limits were in place and enforced.

However, when Broward tried to follow Sarasota's lead in convincing a friendly local judge to shoot down the voter-approved term limits, Broward County stood up for its voters and appealed. The lower court judges in Sarasota and then Broward argued that a split 2002 decision, Cook, in which the Florida Supreme Court denied the constitutionality of term limits for constitutional officers, should also apply to county commission term limits. However, in reviewing the Broward case, Telli, the 4th District Court of Appeals unanimously rejected this claim. Commissioners are different than constitutional officers, they said, and singling out term limits as off limits is a prohibited limitation of home rule.

When the Florida Supreme Court took the case, they also took up the Sarasota controversy (Antunes) at the same time. By the time it got there, both Sarasota and Broward lawyers to their credit were arguing on the side of the people over their own local politicians.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided that not only was the 4th DCA essentially correct, but they receded unanimously from the earlier split (4-3) decision in Cook. As a result, terms limits on both county commissioners and constitutional officers are officially Constitutional in the state of Florida.

Of the three justices who has participated in the 2002 Cook decision, Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis reversed their earlier votes. Justice Peggy Quince was a dissenter in 2002 and had signed on to the ultimately persuasive 2002 dissent by Harry Lee Anstead.

Interestingly, James Rowlee -- a senior assistant attorney in the Broward County Attorney's Office -- had suggested to me as early as February 2011 that this would be the end game. He felt Broward County's argument was correct and that whether or not Broward prevailed at the 4th District Court of Appeals level, it was prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court where, he was convinced, Broward's term limit law would prevail -- and even that Cook might get struck down as a result.

Outside lawyers who reviewed the case concurred that the people would prevail as long as the case made it all the way to Tallahassee. That is why I was not surprised, but no less pleased, by yesterday's decision.

Broward's Joni Armstrong Coffey, Andrew Meyers and Benjamin Salzillo also deserve great credit for their efforts on behalf of voters. Over in Sarasota, kudos also to Andrea Mogensen and her paralegal Micheal Barfield, who took their local citizen revolt all the way to the Supreme Court. And thank you for the Supremes themselves who had the integrity to review its own earlier decision and revise it to better accord with the Florida Constitution and the will of the people.