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Attorney general's office urges Florida Supreme Court to reject gun law case

Bar Jack

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office urged the Florida Supreme Court late Monday to reject challenges to a 2011 state law that threatens stiff penalties if city and county officials pass gun-related regulations.

Lawyers in Moody’s office asked the Supreme Court to uphold a decision last year by the 1st District Court of Appeal that turned down arguments by more than 30 local governments and dozens of local officials challenging the law. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried joined the case, siding with the local governments and officials.

Florida since 1987 has barred cities and counties from passing regulations that are stricter than state firearms laws, and the penalties in the 2011 law were designed to strengthen that “preemption.” The law, for example, could lead to local officials facing $5,000 fines for passing gun regulations.

The case does not challenge the underlying 1987 law but contends the penalties in the 2011 law are unconstitutional because they violate legal immunities for local officials and governments.

But in a 53-page brief filed shortly before midnight Monday, Moody’s office disputed the plaintiffs’ arguments. The brief said for example, that one of the arguments about what is known as legislative immunity “would have sweeping implications for the regulation of local governments and their officials.”

“Ultimately, plaintiffs simply disagree with the policy judgment made by the Legislature to protect the right of Floridians to keep and bear arms,” the brief said. “But nothing in the Florida Constitution confers on plaintiffs the freedom to enact ordinances infringing those civil rights without meaningful sanction.”

Cities, counties and local officials challenged the 2011 law after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 people. Monday was the fourth anniversary of the shooting.

In a brief filed in November at the Supreme Court, attorneys for the plaintiffs said the penalties in the law “violate the legislative immunity of local elected officials because they require the judicial branch to impose personal penalties against local government officials for performing purely legislative activities, including voting for an ordinance that is later found to be preempted, and to do so by inquiring into the motivations of local legislators.”

“Petitioners ask this (Supreme) Court to recognize a fundamental principle of democratic governance: Local elected officials acting in their legislative capacities are entitled to the same immunities and protections historically afforded to all legislators in this country, and the judicial power of the state does not extend to impose financial liability on local governments for the performance of discretionary governmental functions,” the plaintiffs’ brief also said.

Attorneys for the local governments wrote in a 2019 court document that city and county officials had been urged to take actions after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. Those requests involved such things as requiring procedures or documentation to ensure compliance with background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases and requiring reporting of failed background checks.

But the attorneys said local governments refrained from going ahead with the proposals because of the potential penalties in state law. Along with officials facing the possibility of fines and removal from office, the law would allow members of the public and organizations to receive damages and attorney fees if they successfully sue local governments for improper gun regulations.

The Supreme Court announced in September that it would hear the case, though it has not set a date for arguments.

The Supreme Court case stems from three lawsuits that were ultimately consolidated in Leon County circuit court. The challenges were filed by cities and counties from various parts of the state, such as Tallahassee, Gainesville, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

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