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Legislators ignore judge's order on labor talks

The House Speaker says, "We are not going to follow a temporary restraining order that violates our constitutional duty.''

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


The House Speaker says, "We are not going to follow a temporary restraining order that violates our constitutional duty."

TALLAHASSEE -- Already at odds with state courts, lawmakers on Tuesday defied a judge's order to stay out of labor negotiations with a state employees union.

House Speaker Tom Feeney was served with the order late Tuesday afternoon, but refused to cancel a meeting of the Joint Committee on Collective Bargaining.

"We are not going to follow a temporary restraining order that violates our constitutional duty," Feeney said.

Senate President John McKay also declined to call off the meeting, saying the restraining order violated the separation of powers doctrine spelled out in the Constitution.

"The Legislature is an independent body of government and governed solely by its rules," McKay said in a statement.

The order by Circuit Judge Ralph Smith comes less than five months after many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, were soured by the involvement of state courts in the disputed presidential election.

Several measures designed to change the way judges are picked, retained or paid are already working their way through the Legislature this year. Tuesday's ruling did little to curry favor with the Republican-led lawmakers who met in defiance of the order.

"This is the first time in the institutional memory of the Florida Legislature" that a court has ordered lawmakers not to meet, said committee member Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah.

Police did not arrive to break up the committee meeting, but Feeney carried a toothbrush in his pocket anyway, ready to spend the night in jail if necessary.

Smith had ruled that under state law legislators must abide by a 20-day waiting period before holding the hearing on an impasse in negotiations.

The union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, represents 70,000 state workers and has been seeking a 4 percent pay raise. Gov. Jeb Bush's administration has proposed a 2 percent raise.

Steve Kreisberg, chief negotiator for the union, said after the committee meeting that his group will "seek enforcement" of the judge's order, which could mean contempt of court charges against those who violated it.

"We're not looking to incarcerate anyone," Kreisberg said.

One lawmaker -- the sole Democrat on the joint committee -- applauded his colleagues for their defense of separation of powers. Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee said that independence should stand no matter which branch -- including Bush -- tried to interfere with the Legislature.

"Just as we are ignoring the judiciary, we should ignore the executive branch," Lawson said.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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