Florida fights a ruling that halts its lobbying restriction

Lobbying by cagkansayin via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Pointing to securing the “public trust,” Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office has asked a federal appeals court to overturn a decision that blocked part of a 2018 state constitutional amendment imposing new restrictions on lobbying.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom this summer issued a permanent injunction against a restriction on state and local officials lobbying other government bodies while in office. Bloom said the restriction violated First Amendment rights.

But in a 62-page brief filed Wednesday at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, lawyers in Moody’s office disputed that the restriction is unconstitutional and said paid “lobbying by public officials threatens the integrity of and public confidence in democracy.”

“Florida’s restriction alleviates the threat of financial quid pro quos and their appearance in a direct and material way,” the brief said. “It prevents elected and executive-level officers, who wield political influence, from taking, or appearing to take, dollars … for political favors … in derogation of public trust.”

The 2018 amendment, which was proposed by the state Constitution Revision Commission, sought to bar public officials from lobbying “for compensation on issues of policy, appropriations, or procurement before the federal government, the Legislature, any state government body or agency, or any political subdivision of this state, during his or her term of office.”

The remaining plaintiff in the case is Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rene Garcia after Bloom ruled that another plaintiff, South Miami Mayor Javier Fernandez, did not have legal standing.

Garcia, a former state House member and senator, is the executive vice president of New Century Partnership, a firm that provides lobbying and other services. Garcia said he turned down at least two clients who sought lobbying services for legislative appropriations in Tallahassee because of the restriction, according to Bloom’s ruling.

In the filing Wednesday, Moody’s office took issue with the injunction applying to officials across the state. The brief said that if Bloom’s ruling is upheld, it should apply only to Garcia.

“Because Garcia’s injury is limited to the fear of enforcement against him, the court could have afforded complete relief by enjoining the state defendants from enforcing the restriction against only him,” the brief said. “By enjoining the restriction as to all public officers in the state, the district court departed from traditional equitable practice.”

Bloom, who is based in South Florida, ruled that the 2018 constitutional amendment and a law that carried it out placed “content-based, overbroad restrictions on speech.”

“Contrary to defendants’ assertion, the in-office restrictions target speech based on the context of the speech and its content,” Bloom wrote.

But the state’s brief Wednesday said that “no matter the public office or the lobbied government entity making political decisions, Florida has a substantial interest in preventing officeholders from being (or appearing to be) bought and paid for in the political arena while holding public office in public trust.”

Bloom did not block another part of the voter-approved amendment that restricts former state and local officials from lobbying for six years after leaving office.

©2023 The News Service of Florida

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