Saying he violated their constitutional rights “in multiple ways, and over repeated objections,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron asked a Tallahassee judge to remove himself from future proceedings in an environmental funding case.
The legislative leaders filed their disqualification request with Circuit Judge Charles Dodson earlier this week.
On June 28, Dodson had granted a “final (summary) judgment for (the) plaintiffs” in a lawsuit over how lawmakers fund environmental conservation. Summary judgments allow parties to win a case without a trial.
A notice of appeal has not yet been filed, according to court dockets. But attorneys sometimes move for disqualification to avoid having the same judge if a suit on appeal gets kicked back down to the lower-court judge for further action.
The case, first filed in 2015, was over the Water and Land Legacy Amendment, also known as Amendment 1. The 2014 constitutional change, mandating state spending for land and water conservation, garnered a landslide of nearly 75 percent, or more than 4.2 million “yes” votes.
Amendment 1 requires state officials to set aside 33 percent of the money from the real estate “documentary stamp” tax to protect Florida’s environmentally sensitive areas for 20 years.
Advocates — including the Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club — sued, saying lawmakers wrongly appropriated money for, among other things, “salaries and ordinary expenses of state agencies” tasked with executing the amendment’s mandate.
Dodson agreed, declaring a laundry list of 2015 and 2016 appropriations unconstitutional.
“The clear intent was to create a trust fund to purchase new conservation lands and take care of them,” he wrote. “The conservation lands the state already owned were to be taken care of, certainly, but from non-trust money.”
But Andy Bardos, the GrayRobinson lawyer representing Corcoran and Negron, said in his filing the plaintiffs never asked for a final judgment, “but only for partial summary judgment as to nine of 114 appropriations challenged in (the) complaint—or eight percent of its case.”
That violated lawmakers’ right to due process, Bardos said, which has now “eliminated the Legislative Parties’ confidence in the fairness and impartiality of this proceeding.”
In response, David Guest – one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers – said “the alleged bias is based entirely on Judge Dodson’s rejection of their legal arguments, all of which were squarely presented at various points in the proceedings.
“That a judge finds a party’s legal argument unpersuasive cannot be the basis of a motion to recuse the judge – only the basis for an appeal,” he added.
“This sets a very low bar for what counsel for the Legislature considers to be acceptable conduct. Expect more of this kind of play before this case is over.”
As of June 21, the Senate spent $229,172 in total “litigation expenses” defending the suit, Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said. Similar information was not immediately available from the House.
A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner, also a defendant named in his official capacity, said his department “did not obtain outside counsel on this case.”
The full filing, with exhibits, is below: