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Term-limits case bumped up to high court

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  • | 5:00 a.m. January 26, 2012
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The Second District Court of Appeal Monday issued an order asking the Florida Supreme Court to consolidate a Sarasota County Commission term-limits case with a Broward County case the high court already has agreed to hear.

The order says the legal points in the Broward County and Sarasota County cases are identical: “whether a county charter containing term limits provisions for county commissioners is constitutional under article VIII, section 1(e), Florida Constitution.” Therefore, “consolidation of the two cases would preserve judicial economy.”

Although the appeals court’s order does not mention him by name, it also references Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who is serving his third term and who has filed to run for re-election this year. The order says that, because of the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming County Commission election, “qualified candidates might otherwise forego seeking office due to these circumstances. A prompt decision on the constitutional issue by the Supreme Court is a matter within the public’s interest.”

Thaxton said in December that he would stay in the race as long as he legally was permitted to do so.
The candidate qualification period formally begins at noon June 4 and ends at noon June 8. Thaxton supporters have voiced concern that, if the Florida Supreme Court does not rule before June 8, the County Commission election this year could be thrown into disarray.

Two people have filed already to oppose Thaxton in the Republican Primary: former North Port City Commissioner Vannessa A. Corusone, of Venice, and William Brian Slider, a businessman, also of Venice.

The Second District Court of Appeal also noted in its Jan. 23 order that other charter counties in the state have term limits for county commissioners. It adds, “We are advised that litigation is pending in Polk County relating to this same issue.”

Cathy Antunes, president of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government — and one of the 16 plaintiffs in the Sarasota County case — greeted the news of the appeals court order with an email to supporters.

“We look forward to the high court’s ruling,” she wrote, adding that the organization’s members hoped the justices would uphold the August 2011 ruling of the Fourth District Court of Appeal that Broward County Commission term limits are constitutional.

Antunes and the other 15 plaintiffs brought suit against Sarasota County in November, after the County Commission, on a 4-1 vote, approved a referendum on a Sarasota County charter amendment calling for a limit of three consecutive terms for commissioners, effective upon voter approval.

The citizens group not only called the language of the proposed charter amendment confusing, but it also contended in its lawsuit that a limit of two terms for Sarasota County commissioners, as approved by 68% of voters in a Sept. 1, 1998, referendum, should be enforced.

Senior Circuit Judge Jack Schoonover ruled in an emergency hearing Nov. 21 that the ballot language was confusing and the referendum could not proceed as planned Jan. 31. However, he allowed a 2005 12th Judicial Circuit Court ruling on term limits to stand for the time being. That ruling, which went against Sarasota County, said commission term limits were unconstitutional.

Longboat Key Town Attorney David Persson, who represented the county in the 2005 case and is representing it again in the latest lawsuit, said Tuesday he found the action of the Second District Court of Appeal this week to be helpful, although he characterized it as unusual.

When the citizens group Dec. 13 suggested the Second District Court certify its case to the Florida Supreme Court, Persson did not object on behalf of the county. However, he noted that Schoonover’s ruling on the 2005 Sarasota County term-limits decision left open the opportunity for the parties to argue the merits of that case in a future hearing. At the time, Persson said he felt the nature of Schoonover’s action would be important to the appeals court in making its decision.

Persson told The Sarasota Observer Tuesday in an email that the Second District Court order “outlines to the Florida Supreme Court both the statewide importance of resolving the issue of constitutionality of County Commission term limits as well as the need for a decision to guide us prior to the next election cycle.”

• Nov. 8, 2011 — Sixteen Sarasota County citizens file a lawsuit to stop the County Commission from proceeding with a Jan. 31 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. 21, 2011 — Senior Circuit Judge Jack R. Schoonover rules during an emergency hearing that the referendum ballot language is confusing and, therefore, the referendum cannot proceed. However, he lets stand the 2005 court ruling saying Sarasota County Commission term limits are unconstitutional.

• 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.

• Jan. 23, 2012 — The Second District Court of Appeal certifies the Sarasota County case to the Florida Supreme Court, saying the case should be consolidated with the Broward County case, because the legal issues in both are identical.


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