TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Siding with Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously rejected an appeal by ousted Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, finding the governor acted within his authority when he suspended the law-enforcement official.
DeSantis issued the suspension shortly after taking office in January, accusing the sheriff of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” related to two mass shootings in Broward County, including the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Israel, a Democrat, appealed his suspension to the Florida Senate, which has the authority to reinstate or remove elected officials. But that appeal was put on hold when Israel asked a judge to weigh in on whether DeSantis had the power to strip the sheriff of his post. Earlier this month, Broward County Circuit Judge David Haimes backed DeSantis and dismissed the lawsuit.
Israel appealed that decision to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which passed the case on to the Supreme Court.
Israel’s lawyers, Benedict Kuehne and Stuart Kaplan, accused DeSantis of “an executive power grab” that interfered with the public’s right to determine their elected officials and Israel’s right to execute his duties of office.
But, relying in part on a ruling last week that upheld DeSantis’ suspension of Okaloosa County Superintendent of Schools Mary Beth Jackson, the Supreme Court noted that courts have a “limited role in reviewing the exercise of the suspension power, which the Constitution commits to the governor” and which inherently involves “judgment and discretion.”
“While a suspended officer may seek judicial review of an executive order of suspension to ensure that the order satisfies that constitutional requirement, the judiciary’s role is limited to determining whether the executive order, on its face, sets forth allegations of fact relating to one of the constitutionally enumerated grounds of suspension,” Justice Barbara Lagoa wrote for the court.
Therefore, “the factual allegations in an executive order of suspension must satisfy only a low threshold under the judiciary’s limited, facial review,” she continued.
Under that standard, DeSantis’ executive order “satisfies our limited review,” Lagoa wrote.
DeSantis hailed Tuesday’s decision, saying in a prepared statement the opinion “leaves no doubt of my authority as governor to suspend a government official for neglect of duty and incompetence.”
“Scott Israel failed in his duties to protect the families and students of Broward County, and the time for delay tactics is at an end. I look forward to the Florida Senate resuming the process of formal removal,” DeSantis said.
Following the ruling, Senate Special Master Dudley Goodlette gave lawyers representing the governor and the sheriff until 5 p.m. Friday -- one week before the legislative session is scheduled to end -- to submit a proposed schedule in the case.
While Israel was disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling, he “remains confident he engaged in no neglect of duty in discharging his duties as Broward sheriff,” Kuehne said in a prepared statement.
“Sheriff Israel fully intends to challenge his suspension in the Florida Senate, where a thorough review of the facts will prove that he (Israel) worked diligently to protect and safeguard the citizens of Broward, consistent with his election as sheriff,” Kuehne said.
Tuesday’s 10-page Supreme Court opinion found that DeSantis provided “various factual allegations that reasonably relate” to the grounds of Israel’s suspension.
The court also rejected Kuehne’s argument that the grounds for suspension were limited to a statutory duty related to the sheriff’s office.
“There is nothing in the plain language” of the Constitution “stating that the grounds for suspending a public official are solely limited to his or her statutory duties,” the court found.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Carlos Muñiz wrote that Israel’s interpretation of his statutory duties is “far too narrow.”
“A sheriff’s myriad day-to-day functions and responsibilities -- including the development of policies and the training and supervision of employees -- are the essential means of carrying out these overarching statutory obligations,” Muñiz wrote. “And it requires no imagination to see the connection between these obligations and the significant performance deficiencies alleged in Executive Order 19-14.”
In documents filed with the Supreme Court and the Senate, the governor’s lawyer, Nicholas Primrose, accused Israel of being responsible for the deaths of 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as well as five victims of a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
And, citing a report by a panel responsible for investigating the Parkland school massacre, the governor’s lawyer blamed Israel for failing to set up command centers, as well as failures regarding training and leadership. DeSantis’ executive order also blamed Israel for a policy that said a deputy “may” enter the area where an active shooter is located.
But Israel’s lawyer disputed that the mass shooting deaths were the former sheriff’s fault.
“Neither of the independent, post-mortem investigations concluded that Sheriff Israel was responsible for the incidents, or incompetent or neglectful in discharging his sworn duties as sheriff,” Kuehne wrote in a brief. “The authors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission (report) even stated that they found no basis that might warrant Sheriff Israel’s removal from office.”