The decision by House leaders to end their legislative session more than three days early violated the state Constitution, a majority of the Florida Supreme Court said Friday, while ruling that it was too late to order lawmakers to return to Tallahassee.
The ruling effectively ended the 2015 regular session, which was notable for an unresolved budget controversy that caused widespread dysfunction and sharp exchanges between Republican leaders.
Justices unanimously agreed to reject an effort by Senate Democrats to force the House back into session Friday, which was scheduled to be the last day of the annual session. In their lawsuit, Democrats argued that the House’s unilateral decision to adjourn Tuesday afternoon violated a part of the Florida Constitution that reads: “Neither house shall adjourn for more than seventy-two consecutive hours except pursuant to concurrent resolution.”
But in a concurring opinion joined by four other members of the court, Justice Barbara Pariente rejected House Republicans’ argument that the 72-hour provision does not apply to adjourning “sine die” — from the Latin phrase for “without day” — which marks the end of a legislative session.
“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,” Pariente wrote.
The problem, Pariente said, was that with the session required to end on Friday, just one day after Senate Democrats filed the challenge, “there is simply no way to mandate that the entire Florida House of Representatives return to Tallahassee to continue conducting its legislative responsibilities.”
Joining in the opinion were the other four members of the court’s more-liberal majority: Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices R. Fred Lewis, James E.C. Perry and Peggy Quince.
Justice Charles Canady filed a brief opinion saying Senate Democrats “have failed to establish a clear legal right to compel the presence of the House of Representatives until midnight on May 1, 2015.” Justice Ricky Polston, who often joins Canady in the minority, also signed onto that opinion.
Too late to countermand the House’s illegal action, but not too late to make a point.
Senate Democrats used Pariente’s opinion to declare victory.
“We fought to establish a lasting precedent today that both chambers are equal under the law,” Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said in a statement issued after the ruling. “I am proud that the Supreme Court agreed with us, and that this is now the law of the land for future Florida legislatures.”
Senate President Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican who had also questioned the constitutionality of the House’s decision, said the decision “provides important guidance to future presiding officers.”
House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, blasted the GOP leadership of his chamber.
“House Republican leadership unconstitutionally stole three days of productive work from the people of Florida,” he said.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, used the court ruling to get in a shot at the Senate. House leaders have pointed out that both chambers have often adjourned for more than 72 hours without a formal agreement.
“In fact, according to the new interpretation of the Florida Supreme Court, the Senate violated their constitutional duty throughout this session when they adjourned for more than 72 hours without the House’s consent in the form of a concurrent resolution,” Crisafulli said. “I did not take the Florida Senate to court at the time because I did not believe that they were violating their constitutional duty, but rather conducting themselves according to the sovereignty to which they are entitled.”
Crisafulli’s decision to end the session Tuesday came amid a bitterly divisive battle between House and Senate leaders over health-care funding. The Senate wants to use $2.8 billion in Medicaid expansion money to help low-income Floridians purchase private health insurance, in the hopes that the move will encourage federal officials to extend an additional $2.2 billion pool of money for hospitals and other medical care providers. House leaders have consistently refused to go along with the Medicaid-funded expansion.
Despite Friday’s ruling by the Supreme Court, lawmakers will have to return to Tallahassee to wrap up work on a budget. No date has been set for that special session.
“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,” Crisafulli said. “We will make up for these three days, and then some.”
Meanwhile, State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, apologized Friday for a Twitter post that drew criticism about possible racial overtones. The controversy started Thursday when Gaetz tweeted about Senate Democrats’ lawsuit.
“This lawsuit reads like it was researched and drafted by Sen Joyner … and spell checked by Sen Bullard,” Gaetz wrote, referring to Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami. Joyner and Bullard are African-Americans, and the tweet caused an uproar that even led House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, to say he didn’t condone Gaetz’s post. “He is an agitator, yes, but not a racist,” Crisafulli tweeted. “Please accept my apology to those offended.”
But Joyner issued a lengthy statement Friday morning that described Gaetz’s tweet as racist. At the time, Gaetz had yet to apologize. “There were some additional tweets, one attacking liberals and Obamacare, but the silence addressing his disparaging remarks has been deafening,” Joyner said. “In fact, I believe they underscored what myself and others have long suspected, namely that this fierce battle launched by the House Republicans against the Senate’s good healthcare expansion bill had nothing to do with taking federal money.”
“And so while the speaker may try his best to walk back the motive of his member, he cannot walk back the 140 characters of Rep. Gaetz’s racist barb,” Joyner said in the statement. “His words are the kind I have fought against my entire life, the relic of days through which I lived and hope never to live through again.” In the apology Friday, Gaetz indicated his tweet was related to opposition to a health-coverage expansion under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
“My criticisms of ObamaCare Expansion and it’s [sic.] supporters are based solely on the facts,” Gaetz tweeted Friday. “Deeply sorry if anyone read more into it than that.”
Beyond the clashes, there was no hanky drop to mark “sine die” on Friday.
The House and Senate sergeants at arms didn’t carry out the tradition of meeting in the fourth-floor rotunda, between the two chambers, to hold a brief ceremonial handkerchief drop to signal the end of the annual legislative session. Also absent were the cheering lawmakers, staff members and lobbyists — and the red plastic cups of adult beverages that seem to find their way into the rotunda.
The lights of the Senate chamber were quickly turned off at 5:08 p.m. Friday, as there was no lawmaking on either end of the Capitol on the final scheduled day of the 60-day session.
“My colleagues and I look forward to returning to Tallahassee in short order to complete the work we were elected to do,” Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in a release just before 5 p.m.
Gardiner’s statement came shortly after a majority of the Florida Supreme Court said an abrupt adjournment Tuesday by the House was unconstitutional, but that there wouldn’t be an accompanying order for lawmakers to return to Tallahassee, as Senate Democrats had hoped.
The House adjournment came amid a bitter impasse with the Senate about budget and health-care issues. Lawmakers will have to return to the Capitol in May or June for a special session to negotiate and pass a budget.
In all, the most-untypical regular session included the House and Senate passing 232 bills from among a total of 1,752 that were filed. The number of bills approved by both chambers was the lowest in the past 15 years.
Throughout the Capitol complex, few doors were open Friday. Students on end-of-year school outings to the Capitol replaced the well-dressed lobbyists who typically would have congregated outside the House and Senate chambers in the final hours of the session.
Earlier in the day, Senate pages, with little work to perform for lawmakers, took the chamber floor to briefly hold their own mock session.
And with few customers, the 10th floor snack bar reverted to its non-session 1 p.m. Friday closing time.
–News Service of Florida and FlaglerLive