Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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.

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