The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday sent to a lower court a lawsuit that seeks to prevent six proposed constitutional amendments from going on the November ballot.
Justices tried to make clear they were not ruling on the underlying issues in the case, saying in an order that the transfer to Leon County circuit court “should not be construed as an adjudication or comment on the merits of the petition.” But the order, along with a decision against holding oral arguments, means that the Supreme Court will not immediately take up the dispute.
Plaintiffs, including former Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead, filed the case Aug. 14 as a challenge to six proposed constitutional amendments placed on the November ballot by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission. The challenge is based on arguments that the commission improperly tied together unrelated issues in single ballot proposals.
Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, however, filed a response last week calling on the Supreme Court to reject the case. Among the arguments raised in the response was that the plaintiffs had not offered a “compelling reason” why the case shouldn’t follow a rule of being filed in circuit court.
“That rule serves a broad range of policies conducive to the proper administration of justice,” Bondi’s office argued. “For example, it affords this (Supreme) Court the benefit of at least one carefully considered lower court decision addressing the same issues; allows for the creation of a fully developed record facilitating this (Supreme) Court’s review of that lower court decision; and ensures that Florida’s highest judicial authority will not be tasked with resolving important questions of law until the issues presented have already been clarified and refined by multiple rounds of adversarial briefing, including briefing supplied by interested non-parties.”
The Supreme Court order Tuesday did not explain justices’ reasoning for sending the case to the lower court.
The 37-member Constitution Revision Commission meets every 20 years and has unique power to place proposals on the ballot. The commission this spring approved eight amendments for the November ballot, though the proposals have faced a barrage of legal challenges.
The case filed Aug. 14 on behalf of Anstead and fellow plaintiff Robert J. Barnas challenged six of the eight proposals and alleges that they violate voters’ First Amendment rights by tying together unrelated issues. The case raises the specter of voters having conflicting views of issues in the same ballot proposal --- for example, on a ballot proposal that combines a ban on offshore oil drilling with a ban on vaping or using electronic cigarettes in workplaces.
“This is logrolling and a form of issue gerrymandering that violates the First Amendment right of the voter to vote for or against specific independent and unrelated proposals to amend the Constitution without paying the price of supporting a measure the voter opposes or opposing a measure the voter supports,” the case said. “This (Supreme) Court has acknowledged that the right to vote is a fundamental right that may not be abridged in the absence of a compelling and narrowly drawn state interest.”
But Bondi’s office argued that such arguments don’t have a basis in legal precedents or history.
“Moreover, even if the First Amendment included the right petitioners’ claim, the CRC had an entirely rational basis for bundling some of the amendments for inclusion on the 2018 general election ballot,” Bondi’s office argued in the response last week. “According to election officials, long ballots often discourage citizens from voting at all, and if the CRC had listed all the proposed amendments separately, there would appear 25 questions on the ballot this fall. … In other words, the CRC acted reasonably and with the proper intention of minimizing ballot fatigue when it decided to bundle proposed constitutional amendments.”