Just as the governor wields a mighty veto pen over the actions of the legislature, the judiciary has a veto authority (of sorts) of its own. The separation of powers was a concept created to hold the reins on either a too powerful executive or a runaway Legislature. This past year, a couple of high-profile actions from the judiciary illustrate the unique power this body has over the laws our elected representatives attempt to enshrine in the statute books.
During the recently ended legislative session one of the hot-button issues was an attempt to privatize a large portion of Florida’s prison system. The opposition to this effort was spearheaded by Sen. Mike Fasano and a few like-minded legislators. Although the measure died this year after a long and contentious battle, its genesis lies in a court ruling made late last September by Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford.
Any law that is passed by the legislature, and is signed by the governor, is open for challenge in court. In this case, the 2011 Legislature’s effort to insert language in the state budget to privatize many Florida prisons was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union which, at that time, represented correctional workers that would have been impacted by the move.
Judge Fulford ruled that the state budget process was not the appropriate venue through which to make sweeping policy changes. Because of her ruling, the backers of the original measure made another run at prison privatization this year but were defeated by a legislative vote, the proper channel for making policy changes of this magnitude.
Another recent example of the judiciary’s role in the legislative process deals with a provision passed by the Legislature in 2011 and subsequently signed by the governor, which levied a 3 percent withholding from state employee wages to help stabilize the Florida Retirement System. The law applied to all employees hired before July 1, 2011. In March of this year, the same Judge Fulford ruled in a lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association that the withholding should be stayed.
The State of Florida filed to block the stay and the issue is currently awaiting a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court. Because the state appealed the ruling the 3% continues to be withheld from employees and will be until a final ruling is made. If the authority to withhold those dollars is struck down, the legislature will have to grapple with the possibility of refunding hundreds of millions of dollars to the people from which it was withheld.
Just as the actions of the legislature do not occur in a vacuum, neither do those of the judiciary. As a district court (trial level) judge, Judge Fulford’s ruling in the pension withholding issue can and was appealed to the next level, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal (one of five district courts of appeal in the state). The First District sent the case to the Florida’s Supreme Court which is the ultimate authority on rulings of the state's lower courts.
I welcome your questions about the legislative process or any subject that lawmakers may have considered. Please feel free to leave your questions in the comment section and I will answer them in an upcoming post. If there is a specific topic you would like me to write about please let me know as well.