Broward County

Suspended Broward sheriff loses in court to get his job back, but says he will appeal

A judge on Thursday dismissed suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel’s bid to challenge his suspension.

Broward Circuit Judge David Haimes ruled that Gov. Ron DeSantis acted within his constitutional authority when he suspended the longtime sheriff and replaced him in January with former Coral Springs Sgt. Gregory Tony. He did not rule on the merits of Israel’s suspension.

Israel, who was elected in 2012 and plans to run again in 2020, was blamed by DeSantis for his department’s chaotic response to the Feb. 14 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and to the 2017 shooting spree at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

In his suspension order, DeSantis accused Israel of neglect of duty and incompetence.

Following his removal from office, Israel filed a lawsuit in March, challenging whether DeSantis acted within his authority when he suspended him three days after being sworn in as governor. His attorneys argued that DeSantis had failed to identify any statutory or official duty that Israel neglected or performed incompetently.

In his order to dismiss, Judge Haimes said it was not the court’s responsibility to judge the merits of the allegations posed in DeSantis’ executive order suspending Israel, but instead to determine “whether the order names one or more grounds” and if they are “supported with alleged facts sufficient to constitute the grounds named for the suspension.”

The Senate has the “exclusive authority to review the suspension and decide whether to remove or reinstate the official.”

“After reviewing Executive Order 19-14, the Court holds that the Executive Order names specific grounds (neglect of duty and incompetence) that are set forth in the Florida Constitution as grounds for suspension,” Haimes writes in his order, “and further alleges facts that support and bear a reasonable relation to the stated grounds.”

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Israel, a Democrat, plans to appeal the ruling, and his case will also be heard by the Republican-controlled Florida Senate following an evidentiary hearing before an appointed special master.

DeSantis praised the court ruling on Thursday and said he would ask the Senate to “move forward with the process of the formal removal of Scott Israel” ahead of the Florida Legislature’s adjournment on May 3.

“I am pleased that the court recognizes my authority as governor to suspend a public official for reasons of neglect of duty and incompetence,” he said in a statement. “Broward County deserves professional law enforcement leadership that will safeguard the best interests of the community and work diligently for the protection of life.”

In a letter to Special Master Dudley Goodlette, DeSantis asked that the Senate continue the removal hearing process in an “expedited” manner. The hearing was scheduled to take place during the week of April 8, according to the judge’s order.

A panel created to investigate the Parkland shooting found that several BSO deputies failed to try to stop the massacre or were unprepared to do so.

In announcing the suspension, DeSantis said failures of leadership led to breakdowns that may have contributed to the deaths.

The investigative committee found that a policy modification made by Israel, which changed a BSO instruction for confronting active shooters from mandatory to the optional “may,” could have contributed to the department’s response. He later changed the policy back, stipulating that deputies “shall’’ confront the shooter.

Israel has contended that he served the county competently and that the voters should decide their leader.

Benedict Kuehne, an attorney representing Israel, said he was disappointed with the court’s dismissal of his constitutional challenge to DeSantis’ suspension order.

“While we value Judge Haimes’ studied decision, the constitutionality of Sheriff Israel’s suspension will be tested in Florida’s appellate courts,” Kuehne said in a statement. “The Governor’s overreach of the limited suspension authority has never before been used to replace a political opponent at the urging of the National Rifle Association. The Governor’s disagreement with Sheriff Israel’s decisions is not a basis to remove him from office. Only the voters of Broward County, who overwhelmingly elected Scott Israel as Sheriff, should have the authority to decide who is their elected Sheriff. The Fourth District Court of Appeal will be asked to decide this important constitutional question.”