Politics

Florida Supreme Court says House violated state constitution, but will not force them to return to Tallahassee

Lobbyists work in the rotunda between the house and senate chambers during session, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. The Florida House adjourns its annual session three days early because of a budget impasse with the Senate over Medicaid expansion.
Lobbyists work in the rotunda between the house and senate chambers during session, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. The Florida House adjourns its annual session three days early because of a budget impasse with the Senate over Medicaid expansion. AP

The state Supreme Court on Friday found that the Florida House violated the state constitution this week when it adjourned early, but a majority of justices concluded it was way too late to force lawmakers back to town to finish their work because only hours remained until the end of the scheduled legislative session.

“There is simply no way to mandate that the entire Florida House of Representatives return to Tallahassee to continue conducting its legislative responsibilities,” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente late Friday, eight hours before the midnight end to the regularly-scheduled lawmaking session.

Writing in a concurring opinion signed by Justices Jorge Labarga, Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and J.C. Perry, Pariente also concluded: “the House’s unilateral adjournment clearly violated the Constitution.”

The ruling brought to a close a tumultuous and historic week that began when the House decided to adjourn at 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, more than three days ahead of schedule to protest the budget impasse that had deadlocked over accepting a federally-funded healthcare expansion. It was the first time in recorded Florida history that one house shut down on a different day than the other.

A defiant Florida Senate continued meeting and passing bills for another day, accusing the House of violating the constitution and urging the other chamber to return to Tallahassee to finish its work.

On Thursday, the Florida Democratic Caucus filed a lawsuit, seeking a Writ of Mandamus that would confirm the House violated the constitution and order it back to town.

But in the one-page ruling agreed to by all seven justices, the court concluded that the Senate Democrats “failed to show” that compelling the House to return and reconvene “would produce any beneficial result” because the session end was so near.

“This is the law of the land and they can’t do this again,” said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, who led the legal fight.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, thanked Joyner for bringing the suit, saying it now “provides important guidance to future presiding officers.”

But House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, whose lawyers argued that the court did not have the authority to intervene, disagreed with the ruling and warned that it called into question years of legislative tradition.

“From a legal and traditional standpoint, I believe that one Chamber does not need to seek the permission of the other Chamber to adjourn,” Crisafulli wrote in an email to members.

The Senate Democrats argued that the House violated the Florida Constitution’s provisions prohibiting lawmakers from adjourning for more than 72 hours during the course of the regular session without joint agreement of the presiding officers of both chambers.

In a brief filed early Friday, the House disputed that interpretation, suggesting that legislative tradition has never involved agreeing to adjourn by “concurrent resolution.”

Pariente rejected that argument in her concurring opinion.

“The House’s contrary interpretation … is antithetical to the intent of article III, section 3(e),” she wrote. “That constitutional provision clearly does not permit one house to adjourn in any fashion for more than seventy-two consecutive hours without the consent of the other house.”

Crisafulli used the ruling to take a jab at the Senate, saying in his email that “according to the new interpretation of the Florida Supreme Court, the Senate violated their constitutional duty throughout the session” when they adjourned for more than three-day weekends.

He added: “I did not take the Florida Senate to Court at the time because I did not believe that they were violating their Constitutional duty.”

Now, Crisafulli and Gardiner must agree on a special session date to bring legislators back to finish the budget by the June 30 deadline. Gardiner has suggested convening a three-week session, beginning June 1.

Both indicated in their statements Friday that they are prepared to proceed.

“The decision to adjourn sine die was one of the most difficult choices that I have made as a legislator,” Crisafulli wrote in his email to legislators. “With the lawsuits over and a little time to reflect, I trust that we can return with a new level of civility on both sides. We will make up for these three days, and then some.”

Gardiner said: “Cooperation and collaboration between the chambers should not require a court order. My colleagues and I look forward to returning to Tallahassee in short order to complete the work we were elected to do.”

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