An appeals court on Monday tossed out a constitutional challenge to a 2013 law that allows public officials to put their assets into blind trusts, pointing to the “speculative nature” of the case.
Jim Apthorp, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Reubin Askew, filed the challenge last year alleging that the blind-trust law violated a constitutional requirement that officials fully disclose their financial interests.
But a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal found that Apthorp’s case “wholly failed to allege a bona fide, actual, present practical need for a declaration that the qualified blind trust statute is unconstitutional.” In part, it said Apthorp did not allege any public official or candidate had used a blind trust in the most-recent financial disclosures.
“This case presents an important constitutional question, namely whether a public officer who includes a qualified blind trust authorized under [the section of state law] in any financial disclosure required by law complies with the requirement for full and public disclosure found in [the state Constitution],” said the ruling, written by Judge Lori Rowe and joined by judges Timothy Osterhaus and Brad Thomas. “However, notwithstanding the substantial interest in this case from the bench and bar, we are constrained to leave for another day the resolution of this constitutional question because this case lacks a justiciable controversy.”
Thomas, however, wrote a concurring opinion that suggested the court has questions about the constitutionality of the blind-trust law. He wrote that “our conclusion on jurisdiction should not be read as an imprimatur on the statute’s constitutional validity.”
“Our decision today on justiciability should not be read to lend any support for the proposition that the statute at issue ensures ‘full and public disclosure,’ as mandated by … the Florida Constitution,” Thomas wrote.
With Askew leading the effort, Florida voters in 1976 overwhelmingly approved the Sunshine Amendment, which included requiring public officials to disclose their financial interests.
But supporters of the 2013 law say blind trusts prevent conflicts of interest between officials’ public duties and financial interests. A blind trust gives someone else the ability to manage investments without a politician’s knowledge, but it doesn’t require the same level of detail about officials’ holdings as is required by typical financial-disclosure forms.
Gov. Rick Scott used a blind trust during his first term in office but ended it last year and listed his financial assets as he qualified for re-election. That disclosure showed Scott’s net worth at $132.7 million. After the disclosure, Scott put his assets in a new blind trust.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled in July that the blind-trust law did not violate the constitution’s open-government requirements. But the appeals court said Monday that Cooper should not have even ruled on the constitutional question and ordered him to dismiss the lawsuit.