When the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in August 2011 that term limits are constitutional for the Broward County Commission, legal scholars were not certain whether or when the Florida Supreme Court would choose to weigh in on the question. Sarasota County residents were especially interested in what would follow.
For the past six years, Sarasota County Commission term limits have been unconstitutional, thanks to a 12th Judicial Circuit Court ruling in 2005. That ruling made it possible for County Commissioner Nora Patterson to seek a fourth consecutive term in 2010 and for Commissioner Jon Thaxton to file last year for his fourth consecutive term. Thaxton said in mid-December he would continue his campaign “until I am ruled an ineligible candidate.”
The candidate qualification period begins at noon June 4, and ends at noon June 8, for the three Sarasota County Commission seats up for election in 2012. The county’s Primary Election is scheduled for Aug. 14.
The Florida Supreme Court agreed Dec. 12 to accept the Broward County case.
Three weeks earlier, Senior Judge Jack Schoonover ruled in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court that the 2005 term-limits decision could stand, but he left open the option for the parties to litigate that point in the future. Schoonover’s decision followed an emergency hearing on a lawsuit filed in mid-November by 16 citizens seeking a limit of two consecutive terms for Sarasota County commissioners. The two-term limit, approved by 68% of Sarasota County voters in 1998, was overturned by the 2005 court case.
Andrea Mogensen, the attorney for the citizens group, filed a brief Dec. 13 with the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland, asking it to bump up to the Florida Supreme Court an appeal of Schoonover’s ruling. Her paralegal, Michael Barfield, said the appellate court should make its decision by early this year.
If the Second District Court does not certify the Sarasota case to the Florida Supreme Court, Barfield said, the case will remain in Lakeland. In that event, he said, it would be impossible to predict when the appellate court would hear the case.
David Persson, the Longboat Key town attorney the county hired to represent it in the term-limits lawsuit, said the county had no objection to Mogensen’s request and filed a motion to that effect. However, Persson said he found the citizens group’s actions “very strange.”
Persson, who also represented the county in the 2005 case, reiterated what County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh had pointed out in County Commission meetings: The county agrees that term limits are constitutional.
Because both Persson and Mogensen were using the Fourth District Court of Appeal case to support the constitutionality of term limits, and the Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Broward County case, Persson said, “It would seem the best thing to do would be to wait to see what the Supreme Court does and then see if there’s anything left for us to act upon.
“I understand (the citizens group) here wanting to be actively involved in the ultimate decision, but it would seem a lot easier and more efficient for them to file an amicus (friend of the court) brief in the current Supreme Court matter rather than try to boot-strap (Schoonover’s) decision into something it is not,” he said.
However, Mogensen said, “We believe it is imperative to get the issue of term limits in Sarasota County resolved long before the deadlines for qualifications for candidates.”
And if the Florida Supreme Court rules that term limits are constitutional for county commissions, no further action will be needed on the case the citizens group filed in November.
• Sept. 1, 1998 — By a 68% margin, Sarasota County voters approve a County Charter amendment calling for a limit of two consecutive terms for county commissioners.
• Feb. 1, 2005 — A ruling signed by 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Deno G. Economou states the county’s term limits are unconstitutional, citing the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Cook v. City of Jacksonville and Deblaker v. Eight is Enough in Pinellas, consolidated as the Cook case.
• Nov. 8, 2011 — Sixteen Sarasota County citizens file a lawsuit to stop the County Commission from proceeding with a Jan. 31, 2012, special referendum on a new County Charter amendment limiting commissioners to three consecutive terms, effective upon the date of voter approval. The lawsuit also seeks a ruling that the 1998 charter amendment on County Commission terms is constitutional.
• Nov. 15, 2011 — On a 4-1 vote, the County Commission authorizes the special referendum on term limits.
• Nov. 21, 2011 — Senior Circuit Judge Jack R. Schoonover rules during an emergency hearing that the referendum ballot language is confusing. However, he lets stand the 2005 court ruling saying Sarasota County Commission term limits are unconstitutional.
• Dec. 7, 2011 — In entering his order, Schoonover notes his denial of the citizens group’s motion regarding term limits is “without prejudice,” leaving the parties free to litigate that part of the lawsuit in a future court appearance.
• Dec. 12, 2011 — The Florida Supreme Court agrees to hear an appeal of a Fourth District Court of Appeal decision, which ruled term limits are constitutional for the Broward County Commission.
• Dec. 13, 2011 — The Sarasota County citizens group files an appeal with the Second District Court of Appeal, seeking to overturn Schoonover’s ruling on term limits.
• Dec. 13, 2011 — The citizens group suggests the Second District Court of Appeal certify the Sarasota County case as requiring immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court.
• Dec. 16, 2011 — David Persson, attorney for Sarasota County, files a brief with the Second District Court of Appeal, saying the county has no objection to the citizens group’s request. However, Persson notes that Schoonover’s Dec. 7 order on the constitutionality of term limits was not a final order. He adds that that fact “may be of importance to the (Second District Court) in deciding whether to certify the case to the Florida Supreme Court.”
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