Suspended Michael Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi has scored a major legal victory in his quest to regain his seat after Gov. Rick Scott refused to revoke his suspension after his acquittal on federal bribery charges last month.
The Florida Supreme Court on Monday instructed the governor, who was sued by Pizzi, to explain by Oct. 14 why he should not revoke Pizzi’s suspension.
“[T]he Court has determined that the [Pizzi] petition demonstrates a preliminary basis for relief,” according to the order.
In effect, the high court has boxed in the governor, leaving him with little choice but to lift Pizzi’s suspension, which Scott imposed after his arrest in August 2013.
“It’s a home run for us,” Pizzi said after reading the state Supreme Court’s order. “The court has done exactly what we asked them to do.”
The governor’s office issued a statement late Monday, saying: “We will respond to the court within the allotted time.”
The order, just one-third of a page long, notes that the court “is not, however, suggesting that Governor Scott is required to order that Petitioner Pizzi be reinstated to his former municipal office.”
Instead, if the governor were to revoke Pizzi’s suspension, the two-term Miami Lakes mayor would then be cleared to pivot to Miami-Dade Circuit Court to seek his reinstatement.
The legal showdown before the Florida Supreme Court was inevitable after the governor refused to rescind Pizzi’s suspension after Pizzi beat the federal charges. His unprecedented lawsuit, filed in Tallahassee, urged the high court to order the governor to revoke the suspension under the state Constitution.
Under state law, Pizzi and his legal team asserted he was automatically entitled to regain his job immediately after the 12-person jury found him not guilty in Miami federal court. They argued that the law Scott invoked to suspend Pizzi after his arrest also required the governor to revoke the suspension after Pizzi’s acquittal.
Pizzi’s legal team, including criminal-defense attorneys Ben Kuehne and Ed Shohat, said the governor was flouting the law.
“It is sad and a bit ironic that the Florida Supreme Court had to issue an order to tell the governor to do what the Constitution demands that he do,” Kuehne said Monday. “Once Mayor Pizzi's suspension is revoked, he intends to reclaim the seat to which the people of Miami Lakes elected him to serve until 2016.”
Last month, the governor’s office issued a statement in response to the suit, saying Scott’s decision “was rendered in consultation” with Miami Lakes officials after reviewing the town charter. “The courts will ultimately decide the issue,” the statement said.
Initially, Scott’s general counsel issued a letter saying the town charter allowed for a special mayoral election and that Pizzi’s elected replacement, Wayne Slaton, could serve the remainder of his term until 2016.
Slaton, who was trounced by Pizzi in the 2012 mayoral election, has refused to leave office after serving less than a year during Pizzi’s suspension. That decision provoked Pizzi to hold a press conference at Town Hall, where he insisted that he, not Slaton, should be the mayor.
Pizzi’s attorneys argued that Florida law is clear: If an elected municipal leader is cleared of charges, “then the Governor shall forthwith revoke the suspension and restore such municipal official to office.”
The statute goes on to say the official should also collect back pay and other benefits.
Scott’s position is dramatically at odds with the decision he made in August 2011, when he quickly revoked the suspension of Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
The commissioner had been suspended by Gov. Charlie Crist two years earlier, after she was charged with corruption, and someone else was elected to her seat in the meantime. Immediately after Spence-Jones was cleared, Scott issued an executive order clearing her to return.
She came back, completed her term, and collected more than $200,000 in back pay and benefits.
The Miami and Miami Lakes charters are similar. Both say that if an elected official leaves office for more than six months, a special election must be held to fill the seat. And neither addresses the issue of reinstating an officer who has been cleared or acquitted of criminal charges after being absent more than six months.
In August, Pizzi’s attorney, Kuehne, emailed Scott’s general counsel, Peter Antonacci, asking the governor to revoke Pizzi’s suspension, citing state law. Antonacci responded by citing the Miami Lakes charter section that calls for a special election if the mayor is absent for more than six months.
“After reviewing the Miami Lakes Town Charter, and in consultation with the Miami Lakes town attorney, it has been determined that Mayor Slaton was not elected only to fill Pizzi’s seat temporarily until the felony charges against Pizzi were resolved.
“Rather, Mayor Slaton was elected to serve out the term of office as Pizzi’s replacement,” Antonacci wrote.
He ended by saying the matter involved “a local issue and the governor has no further role.”