Court blocks parts of matching-gift case


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Pointing to the constitutional separation of powers, an appeals court Thursday blocked parts of a case that alleges the state acted improperly when it declined to match hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to Florida universities and colleges.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal was a partial victory for legislative leaders in the case, which stems from two lawsuits filed last year by University of Florida graduates and Florida State University donors.

But the court also allowed part of the case, alleging breach of contract by the state, to move forward.

The lawsuits, which were consolidated, target legislative decisions to not provide funds for programs created to match donations to the higher-education system. House and Senate leaders went to the appeals court after Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson in January declined to dismiss most of the case.

Thursday’s ruling took issue with a proposed injunction that would prevent lawmakers from approving future budgets that do not include funding for the matching-grant programs. The appeals court said such an injunction would violate the separation of powers between courts and the Legislature, which has the constitutional authority to approve budgets.

“An injunction that freezes the appropriations process in order to pressure the Legislature to make appropriations under the matching statutes is a direct interference with the Legislature’s constitutional powers,” said the 14-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge James Wolf and joined by judges Ross Bilbrey and M. Kemmerly Thomas. “Further, the proposed injunction would prohibit the performance of a constitutional duty --- the adoption of a state budget --- and thus violate the Constitution itself. The Legislature has a constitutional duty to make appropriations for the maintenance of the government.”

The ruling also rejected part of the case that alleged lawmakers violated a constitutional requirement that laws involving appropriations address single subjects. The plaintiffs contended that the Legislature, by not appropriating money for the matching-gift programs in the budget, changed funding formulas in state law, the ruling said.

The appeals court said that “argument violates the separation of powers doctrine, because asking the trial court to find that the Legislature was constitutionally required to appropriate specific funds for a specific purpose is akin to asking the court to dictate appropriations. The judiciary lacks the authority to do so.”

In a partial win for the plaintiffs, however, the appeals court said the circuit judge could consider allegations that the state breached contracts with donors when it didn’t provide matching money.

“A number of issues remain for the court to determine, including whether the gift agreements were express written contracts that the governmental entities were authorized to enter into, which entities were parties to those contracts, and whether any of the parties breached those contracts,” Wolf wrote. “However, assuming respondents (the plaintiffs) can prove this claim, the trial court may have the authority to establish an appropriate remedy for breach of contract.”

In a news release that touted the breach-of-contract part of the ruling, Grace Mead, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott should keep promises made to donors who contributed money with the expectation that the state would match their gifts.

“Ignoring many hundreds of millions of dollars in financial obligations is no way to balance a budget,” Mead, with the firm Stearns Weaver Miller, said in the news release. “Affordable and excellent higher education is critical for Florida’s families and the state’s future.”

University of Florida alumni Ryan and Alexis Geffin filed one of the lawsuits last year, alleging their undergraduate education was harmed because matching funds weren't provided for construction projects at the school.

A second lawsuit was filed by two Florida State University law-school graduates, Tommy Warren and Kathleen Villacorta. The suit cited a $100,000 donation to the FSU law school for a scholarship fund that was not matched by the state and a $100,000 donation for a scholarship program for students studying marine conservation that was also never matched by the state.