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Butt out of Capitol, court tells judge

A judge who ordered legislators not to meet stepped over the constitutional line, says the Supreme Court.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001

A judge who ordered legislators not to meet stepped over the constitutional line, says the Supreme Court.

TALLAHASSEE -- The Leon County judge who threatened legislative leaders with contempt lacked the authority to interfere in legislative business, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The court ruled a day before House Speaker Tom Feeney, Senate President John McKay and committee chairmen were due to appear in Circuit Judge L. Ralph "Bubba" Smith's Tallahassee courtroom to face criminal contempt charges.

Smith issued the contempt order last week after lawyers for a state employee union accused legislators of violating a restraining order Smith had issued to block legislators from meeting to discuss collective bargaining negotiations.

Legislative leaders argued that the judge's order violated the constitutional separation-of-powers doctrine that prohibits one branch of government from interfering in the affairs of another.

The court, in an unsigned opinion said simply: "We agree."

"The circuit court did what it had no authority to do: It issued an order contravening the internal workings of the Legislature," the court said.

Judge Smith's injunction barring the entire Legislature "impinged on the sovereignty of a co-equal branch of government," the court concluded.

"Where the Legislature is concerned, it is only the final product of the legislative process that is subject to judicial review," the court said.

The court also noted that legislators are in the midst of their annual legislative session attempting to resolve a number of "highly important issues" and need to complete business promptly.

Feeney was meeting with Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan and others when the decision was announced.

Rising to leave the speaker's office, Brogan reached across the table to shake hands.

"I'm glad I don't have to come and visit you in stir, Mr. Speaker," Brogan joked.

McKay said he was not surprised by the ruling.

"There wasn't a whole lot of doubt," McKay told reporters. "I didn't go buy a new toothbrush."

Six of the court's seven justices agreed on the decision, but Justice Peggy Quince filed a partial dissent.

She said she agreed that Judge Smith exceeded his jurisdiction, but questioned whether he might have been able to act if lawmakers had been acting in a non-legislative capacity when dealing with a collective bargaining dispute.

"We certainly don't see this as a defeat in any way, shape or form," insisted Steve Kreisberg, the lawyer for the state employee union. "It's pretty clear the court was disturbed by the Legislature's behavior. It's as much what they didn't say as what they did say."

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