Miami Politics

Judge keeps decision to self in Dunn v. Spence-Jones as they fight in court

After an early-morning 50-minute hearing Monday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge E. Cueto said he has made up his mind on whether Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones can run for a third term — but he’ll keep it to himself as he crafts a decision possibly in the next two days.

Cueto, who presided over the 6:30 a.m. court session, listened intently to arguments on both sides of the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II’s lawsuit, which argues Miami City Attorney Julie Bru’s decision to allow Spence-Jones to seek a third term was flawed and goes against the intent of the city charter.

Cueto, acknowledging the case was precedent-setting and that he has no doubt the side he rules against will appeal, decided to take his time in wording the opinion. Attorneys for Dunn and Spence-Jones said they intend to appeal the verdict if it doesn’t go their clients’ way.

“I’m ready to rule from the bench,” Cueto said. “But I know whatever I write will have consequences.”

Cueto gave Dunn and Spence-Jones the option of hearing the opinion in court Wednesday or receiving it by email. Both accepted the email option. Later, he said he may issue an opinion earlier than Wednesday.

Dunn spent the hearing silently with his fingers intertwined, sitting to the left of his attorney and former State Rep. J.C. Planas. Spence-Jones, who was supported by her attorney Bruce Rogow and a host of city attorneys also remained quiet during the proceeding, often reading scripture to herself off to Rogow’s right.

Afterward, she said she’d continue to trust in God and trust in her attorney.

“I’m expecting that the truth shall prevail, and that I’ll continue to serve,” Spence-Jones said.

Also questioned afterward, Dunn ceded his thoughts to his attorney.

“The judge seemed to acknowledge a lot of what we’re saying,” Planas said.

Dunn, who has lost an election, a special election, and a runoff to Spence-Jones in past eight years, and who has twice been appointed to the District 5 seat Spence-Jones now represents, doesn’t believe the commissioner should be allowed to run for office again in November when her second term ends. Spence-Jones, who missed almost 21 months successfully fighting state-brought felony charges, believes she is owed another term because of time missed.

In October 2011, City Attorney Bru agreed with her, opining the city charter allows for two full terms as a commissioner, and since Spence-Jones didn’t fulfill two full terms, she should be allowed to run for a third.

Dunn and Planas say Spence-Jones should not be allowed to return because she received full back pay, including pension and benefits, for the time she missed. The argument is also partially based on Spence-Jones remaining a commissioner during her time out of office, an opinion shared by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, which decided even during her suspension that Spence-Jones had to fully disclose her income.

But Spence-Jones and Rogow counter that two terms mean two full terms, and that if there is any “ambiguity” as to whether Spence-Jones should get another shot at office, it should be decided by the voters.

Though it can be tricky reading a judge’s mind simply by listening to his questions and thoughts, Cueto did cut off Rogow almost immediately after he began speaking. Rogow began his argument and had only mentioned there was “no slippery slope here,” and “ambiguity,” when the judge chimed in.

“But I don’t find any ambiguity here. I think the intent was fairly clear, they wanted term limits,” Cueto said of a 1999 referendum in which the public voted 73 percent in favor of term limits, and the city attorneys who wrote it into the city’s charter.

Countered Rogow: “She could not conduct the business of her office because she was suspended. No matter how you cut it, it comes back to elected and qualified. She was yanked from office, back pay is a red herring. There has to be an expressed provision: Thou shalt not run again.’ If there is any reasonable doubt, then you have to leave it to the voters. It’s like in baseball, a tie goes to the runner.”

Planas kept hammering away at how a suspension is not a termination. At one point he brought up the 1981 assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan, wondering if Reagan deserved a third term because someone else held the powers of the president’s office for a short time.

“It simply doesn’t work that way,” Planas said. “There’s no ambiguity here, it doesn’t exist.”

A decision is expected no later than Wednesday. Both sides say they will appeal.

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