Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Are Palm Beach County voter-approved term limits in danger?

As detailed in the previous post, the politicians in Broward won round one against the voter approved county commission term limits law in that county. Broward is appealing the circuit court decision. The case may ultimately go to the Florida Supreme Court.
What does the Broward case mean to Palm Beach County, where 70 percent of voters here approved 8-year county commission term limits in 2002?

  • If Broward County wins the appeal, nothing will happen in Palm Beach. The position of the voter-approved Palm Beach County law will be strengthened.

  • If the Broward County loses its appeal, the county will ask for a Supreme Court review. The case at the Supreme Court level is very strong and ultimate victory likely.

  • However, in the meantime the appellate decision could be used as a basis for a suit by county commissioners and local special interests against Palm Beach County voters to overthrow the law.

    • You can bet that the local pols will not wait for the Supreme Court to act. If what is happening in Broward is any clue, county commissioners will find a patsy to file a suit against the voters immediately and then announce their re-election campaigns. They, of course, will pretend they are not involved in the suit.

      County Commissioner Karen Marcus -- a 26-year veteran who hasn't faced a general election challenger in nearly 20 years -- has already said she plans on running again.

      Voters continue to support term limits in overwhelming numbers. We should ask Karen Marcus and Burt Aaronsen, the two commissioners affected by the law in 2012, to respect the will of the voters. They should leave our term limits law alone and not run again without sitting out a term as the law provides. Please also answer the poll question at the top right of this page. Let them know how we feel.

      Update on Broward Term Limits Case

      As noted below, a politically active circuit court judge in Broward rule last Election Day that Broward voters had no right to vote (with 80 percent of the vote!) to limit the terms of Broward County commissioners 12 years ago. Local politicians challenged the law just as it was going into effect and the judge -- whose husband is himself a term-limited former mayor of Ft. Lauderdale -- obliged them.

      Broward is appealing the case on behalf of its citizens to the 4th District Court of Appeals. In mid-March, Broward County filed its brief in defense of the voter-approved term limits law. Broward is arguing that the Supreme Court's Cook case, which the circuit judge used to justify striking down term limits, is not controlling. In that case in 2002, the Florida Supreme Court struck down term limits on county officers such as the sheriff and tax collector in Duval and Pinellas Counties.

      In its brief, Broward argues that Cook applied to a different class of office holders and different section of the county charter that uses different language than the section considered in Cook. Thus, the case of Broward County commissioner term limits is to be distinguished from the Cook case and should be decided differently and Cook is not controlling and the circuit court decision should be overturned.

      More importantly, Broward is arguing that as a home rule county (that is, with a state-sanctioned home rule charter granting significant autonomy in local government) permits charter counties to make local rules -- like term limits -- as long as the changes do not conflict with state law. No one alleges that term limits contradict state law. The politicians are arguing that because the state constitution is silent on the issue, the counties do not have the power.

      Broward is asking, what is home rule is if not the power to make local decisions on such issues?

      One might expect the Florida Association of Counties to weigh in in favor of broader home rule powers -- something they traditionally champion -- but their opposition to term limits apparently trumps their commitment to home rule. They declined to submit a amicus brief in support of Broward.

      An answer to the Broward brief is expected by mid-May. Then, Broward can file an answer brief within 20 days. The final decision can be expected at any time after that, probably by October but almost certainly by the end of the year. If Broward loses, they intend to take the case back to the Supreme Court. Their case is even stronger at that level because the primary issue will not be whether or not Cook is controlling but whether or not home rule really means home rule or if it doesn't. This broader argument is compelling and could strike down not only the politicized Broward decision, but Cook also.

      Stay tuned for more news about this historic case.