Judge allows police budget challenge to advance in Florida

crime scene tape
By Tony Webster (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge on Tuesday cleared the way for a lawsuit challenging part of a controversial protest law that gives the governor and Cabinet the authority to override local governments’ decisions about police spending.

A group of cities in November filed a lawsuit challenging the 2021 statute, alleging the measure (HB 1) unconstitutionally “strips municipalities of budget-setting authority.”

The law, pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year, created a process by which state attorneys or other elected officials can appeal municipalities’ decisions to reduce funding for local law enforcement agencies to the state Administration Commission, which is made up of the governor and members of the state Cabinet.

Following an appeal, the law requires that local budgets “as approved, amended, or modified by the Administration Commission shall be final.”

Lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis in May filed a motion seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing, in part, that the cities did not have legal standing because the commission has not handled any appeals about spending reductions.

But Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh on Tuesday rejected the state’s request, saying the case “goes to the heart” of the division of power between elected officials at different levels of governance. He also emphasized the importance of the case to Floridians.

Marsh on Tuesday also removed Attorney General Ashley Moody as a defendant in the lawsuit, ruling that she is not a proper party to the case.

The legal challenge, filed by attorneys representing the cities of Tallahassee, Gainesville, Lauderhill, Wilton Manors and Miramar, argued that the law “disrupted local budgeting authority by giving Florida’s executive branch the power to commandeer the local budgeting process.”

Marissa Roy, an attorney who represents the cities, said Tuesday that the local governments are challenging what they see as the DeSantis administration overstepping its constitutional authority.

“The Florida Constitution affords municipalities the right of home rule. And what that means is that they get primary control and flexibility to make decisions that are local decisions. And the budget is the core local decision that lies at the heart of all municipal functions, the ability to build a budget that then will inform all other city departments’ activities, hiring, services,” Roy told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing.

Roy said that “losing control” of the budgetary process could “spell disastrous effects” for cities.

“And so what we’re arguing here is, it is that right that has been infringed. Because now there is a process by which the state can take up these budgets upon appeal and unilaterally revise them, line by line, with regard to the law-enforcement budget,” she said.

But attorneys representing the state told Marsh Tuesday that the cities have not proposed reductions to their law enforcement budgets, and thus cannot prove they have been injured by the law.

Nicholas Meros, who serves as DeSantis’ deputy general counsel, disputed the cities’ arguments that the law has “chilled” their ability to make decisions about policing budgets.

“Without alleging these kinds of actual concrete facts, their fear of harm is speculative,” Meros said.

DeSantis championed the bill (HB 1) during the 2021 legislative session as a way to crack down on violent protests.

The governor rolled out the framework for the legislation amid nationwide protests last year that called attention to racial disparities in policing. The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

The law, one of the 2021 legislative session’s most controversial issues, enhanced penalties and created new crimes in protests that turn violent. It has drawn a federal court challenge by a number of groups that allege it violates First Amendment rights and other constitutional protections. Calling it unconstitutionally “vague and overbroad,” Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in September blocked parts of the law from going into effect, prompting a state appeal. The appeal is pending.

Several Tallahassee city officials, including Mayor John Dailey and Commissioner Jack Porter, attended Tuesday’s hearing.

The city argued in the lawsuit that a mental health crisis response unit dubbed the TEAM Unit, which uses $250,000 in city funding, could trigger the administration commission review.

“With this law in place, it’s certainly something that we’ve considered. We’re actually voting on our budget, we’re having the final hearing tomorrow. So it’s something that has not finally been decided, but it’s something that we’ve considered in moving forward,” Porter told reporters.

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