That is the only explanation that the Second District Court of Appeals gave voters for their acquiescence to Pinellas County commissioners to ignore the 8-year term limits law approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1996. The decision was rendered on April 16.
Of the 20 charter — or “home rule” — counties that have the power to customize their county government structure, 12 so far have passed term limits, mostly of the 8-year variety. Most have enforced their term limits from day one, but a couple of recalcitrant county commissions (Sarasota and Broward, to be specific) fought them in court claiming they were unconstitutional. However, in 2012, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously decided that county commission term limits are indeed constitutional. For good measure, they also decided that constitutional officer term limits are constitutional, overturning an earlier split decision.
As a result, every term-limited county in Florida except one is enforcing their voter-approved term limits. The exception is Pinellas, and so far they are getting cover from the courts.
Why? The appellate court wouldn’t say. Perhaps this is because there is nothing to say.
It appears the courts so far have taken the position that the term limits were approved so long ago, they have never been enforced in Pinellas County, it would upset the political apple cart, it would be far easier to just let the status quo stand. Can’t we just all move on?
That is not a legal argument, of course.
The scofflaw incumbent commissioners named in the case rest their legal hat on the shaky premise that the Supreme Court effectively overturned Pinellas’ term limits law in its 2002 Cook decision which ruled constitutional officer term limits unconstitutional. That’s why the commissioners refused to place the voter-approved amendment in their charter.
Well, yes, the Pinellas law did include constitutional officers and this provision was clearly shot down, if only temporarily.
One of the problems with that argument is that the court never explicitly overturned the Pinellas law, and indeed the Cook decision didn’t even mention the issue of county commission term limits. Moreover, three other counties in which courts explicitly overturned the term limits (Sarasota, Broward and Duval) are now enforcing their limits due to the unanimous Supreme Court decision of 2012 deeming them constitutional. That includes Duval County, which was part of the Cook decision case!
How can that be squared with last week’s decision in Pinellas? It can’t — which means that the last chapter of this story is not yet written. Patrick Wheeler, who — along with Maria Scruggs — is leading this lawsuit on behalf of voters, has vowed to take this case to the next, and last, step.
Will the Supreme Court of Florida let a handful of corrupt local politicians defy its unanimous decision as well as the will of a large majority of Pinellas County voters? I can’t imagine it. But we will find out due to the courage, honesty and persistence of citizens Wheeler and Scruggs.
The appellants are soliciting donations for legal expense. Please help. Checks can be sent to John Shahan, PA, 536 East Tarpon Avenue #3, Tarpon Springs, FL, 34689 please mark check “For Term Limits Expenses.”