Life and politics from the Sunshine State's best city

Supreme Court strikes down section of state’s qualifying law

in Statewide by

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday struck down part of the state’s election qualifying law as unconstitutional, calling it “irrational,” “unreasonable and unnecessary,” and ordered a candidate for City of Miami Gardens mayor to be allowed back on the ballot.

The court’s 6-1 opinion reverses a 3rd District Court of Appeal decision, invalidates the city’s Aug. 30 election and means James Wright, a former Opa-locka police chief, can qualify to run anew.

State law “tainted the entire Miami Gardens election for the office of Mayor by keeping the name of a candidate off the ballot, and therefore, beyond the reach of all the voters,” said the opinion, written by Justice R. Fred Lewis. “This is irremediable without a new election.”

The section in question required a candidate to be disqualified if her or his bank check for the qualifying fee was returned “for any reason” and the candidate hadn’t repaid with a cashier’s check by the end of qualifying period.

In Wright’s case, he used a starter check from his brand-new campaign account, which had “ample funds,” and Wells Fargo wrongly rejected paying the check.

Moreover, he wasn’t told about the $620 check being returned unpaid until after qualifying had ended, and the city clerk wouldn’t accept a cashier’s check from Wright.

The 3rd District, despite admitting its “distaste” for its own decision, said the “statute’s use of the term ‘returned by the bank for any reason’ renders irrelevant any consideration of whether the candidate bore responsibility for the check being returned.”

But that court asked the Supreme Court to consider the case as a “question of great public importance.”

On Thursday, Lewis called the provision “arbitrary and without a rational basis.” His decision reverts state law to previous language of giving candidates 48 hours to pay a qualifying fee after a check has been returned, regardless of the end of the qualifying period.

“(S)olely because luck was not on Wright’s side, he is abruptly disqualified without an opportunity to cure the error, and the citizens of Miami Gardens are deprived of an otherwise qualified candidate,” the opinion said.

“(T)his is irrational. Where offering a cure would not adversely impact an election or the election process, the arbitrary disqualification is the antithesis of our democracy and the election of its officers.”

Referring to Thomas Paine, Lewis added, “Unreasonable and unnecessary restrictions on the elective process are a threat to our republican form of government. At their worst, they cloak tyranny in the garb of democracy.”

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy A. Quince, James E.C. Perry concurred.

Justice Charles Canady concurred in the result but disagreed with Lewis’ legal analysis.

“Wright has never sought a determination that the statute is unconstitutional,” he wrote in a footnote. “Indeed, he has never so much as suggested that the statute is constitutionally infirm. His position has consistently been that the City’s position regarding application of the statute is incorrect.”

Justice Ricky Polston dissented, first noting that “Mr. Wright did all he could possibly have done to comply with the statutory requirements.”

But he said the court “does not have the constitutional authority to rewrite statutes lawfully enacted by our state’s Legislature by just asserting that a statute that it does not wish to enforce is unnecessary, unreasonable, and arbitrary.”

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

Latest from Statewide

Go to Top