Justices: House adjournment violated constitution
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – 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.
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."
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