Florida Supreme Court sends blind trust challenge to lower court


The News Service of Florida

The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday sent a lawsuit challenging elected officials’ use of blind trusts to a lower court, likely delaying a decision in the politically charged case.

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of a 2013 law that allows elected officials to put their financial assets in blind trusts, which do not offer detailed public disclosure of their holdings. Jim Apthorp, former chief of staff to the late Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew, filed the lawsuit last week.

Apthorp argues that blind trusts violate the "full and public" disclosure requirements of the Sunshine Amendment, which requires elected officials to provide details about their financial interests. His petition asked the Supreme Court to prohibit Secretary of State Ken Detzner from accepting the qualifying papers of any candidate using a blind trust.

The weeklong qualifying period for this year’s candidates begins June 16. Apthorp's attorneys filed a motion Wednesday seeking oral arguments in the Supreme Court. But just hours later, justices referred the case to circuit court in Leon County.

"We are confident our attorneys and ethics advocates who have joined our case will prevail when the case is tried in the circuit court," Apthorp said in a prepared statement. "We urge the circuit court to expedite legal proceedings in this important case."

On Monday, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, all Republicans, asked the high court to dismiss the case. Bondi's lawyers also argued the case should be sent to a lower court if the Supreme Court did not dismiss it.

Bondi pointed to a sweeping ethics law that passed the Legislature unanimously last year. A priority of Gaetz and Weatherford, the law includes a provision allowing elected officials to use blind trusts as a means of avoiding the appearance of conflicts between their public duties and their financial interests.

A 2010 statewide grand jury and the Florida Commission on Ethics also recommended the use of blind trusts for that purpose.

After the lawsuit was filed last week, Gaetz and Weatherford called it a "cynically timed political ploy” designed to affect the outcome of this year’s elections.

That’s because Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for re-election, is the only Florida elected official currently using a blind trust. His campaign has said Scott will abide by whatever the court decides.

Talbot "Sandy" D’Alemberte, an attorney for Apthorp, praised Scott for his stance.

"This is consistent with Scott’s conduct in seeking advice from the Commission on Ethics and obtaining a statute authorizing blind trusts," he wrote in a brief filed Wednesday in the Supreme Court. "Even if a ruling here affects him, that is irrelevant to the pure legal question."

A Leon County circuit judge also is currently hearing arguments in another statewide political controversy involving the 2012 Legislature’s redrawing of the state’s congressional districts.

Gaetz, who had just finished more than six hours of testimony in the redistricting case Wednesday, declined comment on the latest development in Apthorp’s lawsuit. Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta said the Senate president "doesn’t feel comfortable commenting at this time, since the case is now before the court."

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