Miami Politics

Judge keeps ruling to self as Spence-Jones and Dunn duel in court

After a 50-minute hearing Monday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge E. Cueto said he has made up his mind about whether Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones can run for a third term — but he’ll keep his decision to himself as he crafts a ruling, to be issued by Wednesday.

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 losing side will appeal, decided to take his time in wording the opinion. Attorneys for Dunn and Spence-Jones both 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, former State Rep. J.C. Planas. Spence-Jones, who attended with her attorney, Bruce Rogow, also remained quiet during the proceeding, often reading scripture to herself. A host of city attorneys also were there.

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

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

Also questioned afterward, Dunn preferred to have his attorney speak.

“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 the 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 while suspended from office successfully fighting state-brought felony charges, believes she is owed another term because of the time she was not actively serving.

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. They say she remained a commissioner during her time out of office, an opinion shared by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, which decided that even during her suspension Spence-Jones had to fully disclose her income.

But Spence-Jones and Rogow counter that charter language limiting commissioners to “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.

During the hearing, Rogow began his argument and said there was “no slippery slope here” when the judge chimed in, cutting Rogow off almost immediately.

“But I don’t find any ambiguity here,’’ Cueto said. “I think the intent was fairly clear, they wanted term limits,” he said, referring to voters who, in a 1999 referendum, voted 73 percent in favor of term limits. He also referred to the subsequent language written by city attorneys 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 hammered at a key point for his side, insisting that a suspension is not a termination. He used the example of the 1981 assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan, saying Reagan did not deserve 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.”

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