Chief Justice Marshall would have known how to handle Miami Lakes case

david michael howarth photography

Michael Pizzi, the former mayor of Miami Lakes, has filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court to force Gov. Rick Scott to order him reinstated after his acquittal on public corruption charges. The petition should be rejected, and the court can look to one of the most famous constitutional decisions in our country’s history for guidance on how to resolve this potential political crisis.

More than 200 years ago, as John Adams was completing his presidential term after having been defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the national election of 1800, Adams appointed hundreds of what were called “midnight appointees” to positions in the federal government.

One of the appointees was Stephen Marbury, who was to be the justice of the peace for Maryland. However, the appointment was not delivered to Marbury before the Adams administration left office. When the new secretary of state, James Madison, took over that office, he refused to deliver the commission to Marbury. The disappointed appointee petitioned the Supreme Court to order Madison to deliver his commission. Sound familiar?

Chief Justice John Marshall, a close political confidant of former President Adams, and an enemy of his cousin, President Jefferson, wrote the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Marbury v. Madison. That decision has been known throughout history for the legal principle that our nation is governed by law and that the Supreme Court decides what the law is. That decision has established the bedrock principle that when the court finds that laws violate the Constitution, then the laws must fail and the Constitution must prevail. That decision has properly been used to enforce civil-rights laws and to protect the rights of minorities throughout our history.

While Chief Justice Marshall wrote an opinion that was highly critical of President Jefferson and his secretary of state, the future President James Madison, one of the frequently overlooked parts of the opinion is that Marbury never received his appointment as justice of the peace. The brilliance of Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion was that while he established the rule of law that would be used throughout the history of the nation to protect our rights, the chief justice also carefully avoided a political crisis — indeed, a political war — that would have resulted if the court had ordered Secretary of State Madison to issue the commission to Marbury.

The chief justice knew that the election of 1800 had been very contentious and had led to a radical change in the federal government. He knew how important it was to avoid a political crisis at that time. Thus, the chief justice, for a unanimous Supreme Court, ruled that it did not have the legal authority to order Secretary Madison to issue the commission.

The Florida Supreme Court also must make a decision at a time of political uncertainty. The court is being asked to order a governor to overrule the decision of a city in the middle of a hotly contested statewide political race. There is no way to predict the damage that could be inflicted on the confidence of the people of this state if they witness a political fight between our Supreme Court, our governor and the city of Miami Lakes at this time.

The court should therefore follow Chief Justice Marshall’s lead and refuse to order Gov. Scott to reinstate Pizzi. The court should not undermine its legitimacy by intervening in this political dispute, even if the court believes that Pizzi is entitled to be reinstated as mayor.

Pizzi’s remedy is at the polls. He has every right to run again for election as mayor, and in that election, he has every right to contend that he was deprived of his right to complete his term after he was acquitted. If the people of Miami Lakes want to reinstate Pizzi as mayor, they can do so. But, the Florida Supreme Court should find a way to avoid this potential political crisis the same way that Chief Justice Marshall avoided a political war 200 years ago.

Joseph DeMaria is a former federal prosecutor and longtime civil litigator in Miami.

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