Florida Justices Uphold Governor’s Suspension of Sheriff

(CN) – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did not exceed his authority when he suspended a sheriff over his response to two mass shootings, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, waves during his inauguration ceremony on Jan. 8, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

DeSantis, a Republican, suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, a Democrat, just days after the governor’s inauguration in January, accusing the elected sheriff of “neglect of duty and incompetence” in the Valentine’s Day 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 dead and the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport shooting in 2017 that claimed five lives.

In the unanimous decision, the state’s high court found the Florida Constitution gives the governor broad authority to suspend constitutional officers and limits the judiciary’s role in examining evidence of the allegations.

“Israel is free to dispute the merits of the suspension order’s factual allegations and to argue about the proper role of a governor in supervising local officials. But the appropriate forum for those debates is the Senate,” Justice Barbara Lagoa wrote for the court. “It is not this court’s role to weight the sufficiency of the evidence or to second-guess the governor’s exercise of a discretionary function.”

Per state law, the Florida Senate will ultimately decide Israel’s fate. A hearing is set for May 28.

“Today’s Florida Supreme Court opinion leaves no doubt of my authority as governor to suspend a government official for neglect of duty and incompetence,” Governor DeSantis said in a statement Tuesday. “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.”

Israel’s attorney, Ben Kuehne, said the sheriff is disappointed in the decision, but plans to vigorously defend himself in the Senate hearing.

“With [Tuesday’s] ruling, local elected officials now need to be aware of the potential for governor overreach when discharging their duties,” Kuehne said in an email to Courthouse News. “Political considerations that were never before a basis for suspension may now be a constitutional reality in Florida.”

DeSantis frequently criticized Israel during his gubernatorial campaign and vowed to hold public officials accountable in his inauguration speech.

On Jan. 11, the governor issued an executive order suspending Israel, blaming his deputies’ lack of training and an untimely response to the shootings. DeSantis appointed Sheriff Gregory Tony to replace him. 

Israel responded with a petition to the Broward County Circuit Court, claiming DeSantis went beyond his authority and failed to provide factual evidence of negligence. The circuit court dismissed the petition and Israel appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which sent the question to the Florida Supreme Court.

After his suspension, Israel claimed partisan politics was the real reason for his ouster. Israel, elected in 2016, is a Democrat, while DeSantis is a Republican.

Israel was one of three elected officials suspended by DeSantis in his first month as governor. The governor also suspended an Okaloosa County school superintendent in the Panhandle and the supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County, who later resigned.

DeSantis also rescinded former Governor Rick Scott’s suspension of embattled Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes and formally accepted her resignation. The move ensured she would not receive a hearing in the Senate.

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