The Florida Supreme Court on Friday settled a long-running dispute between three local officials and the Orange County Charter Review Commission over whether the group could set term limits and hold nonpartisan elections for six constitutional posts — clerk of the circuit court, sheriff, property appraiser, tax collector and comptroller.
The ruling means that officers will run in nonpartisan elections and serve a maximum of four terms, each lasting four years. As it stands, officers are elected in partisan elections without term limits.
The idea sprouted from the board of commissioners, who created an ordinance and added a question to the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot. Ahead of the election, property appraiser Rick Singh, Orange County Sheriff John W. Mina and county tax collector Scott Randolph filed a lawsuit arguing that voters deserved to know if candidates were Democrats or Republicans.
But voters weighed in before a judge could, approving the amendment by majority vote while the lawsuit trickled through lower courts. Judges had no problem with term limits, but ruled that the county couldn’t switch from partisan to nonpartisan. The high court has bucked the trend, ruling that it could.
According to Orlando lawyer Nick Shannin, counsel to supervisor of elections Bill Cowles, the ruling wasn’t what either party hoped.
“Nobody got what they wanted,” Shannin said.
Shannin’s client, Cowles, was an automatic defendant in the lawsuit and took no position — serving more of an advisory role.
The county intended to have the race for constitutional officers in the primaries, meaning two candidates would typically meet in the general election, but the court said no.
“If three Democrats, two Republicans and one nonparty person files, all six candidates are going to be listed on this general ballot together, and the voters won’t have any information listed on the ballot as to which of those candidates are Republicans, which of them are Democrats,” Shannin said. “They’re just going to see a list of names.”
Orange county wanted to make elections nonpartisan, according to Shannin, because it used to be a county where Republicans had an edge in elections.
“As the demographics have changed that has markedly changed,” Shannin said. “Now it’s quite difficult for a Republican to win a countywide race in Orange County. By changing it from nonpartisan, it gives all candidates an easier opportunity to get elected.”
Challengers to the amendment were also disappointed, having wanted the race to stay partisan.
According to plaintiffs counsel Gigi Rollini of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson in Tallahassee, the ruling has enabled a free-for-all.
“The decision left a lot of people scratching their heads,” Rollini said. “The problem is that election scenario doesn’t appear to exist anywhere in state law, and wasn’t approved by voters. It’s a messy situation that the court system or the legislature will almost certainly have to address further.”
Not over yet?
Justice Peggy Quince wrote the opinion, with the backing of Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Jorge Labarga. Interestingly, Pariente, Quince and Lewis on Tuesday left the bench for mandatory retirement.
“What this signals to everybody is that if another challenge is raised up to the same court on the same issue, the new court may be willing to issue a ruling either clarifying or outright changing the result in this case,” Shannin said.
Justice Ricky Polston wrote a lengthy dissent, chastising the majority for what he called its blatant disregard for election code.
“The majority attempts to gloss over the ordinance’s direct conflict of banning partisan elections for county constitutional offices,” Polston wrote.
Chief Justice Charles Canady and Alan Lawson concurred with Polston.
The county’s lawyers deferred comment to their client, which declined to comment and instead pointed to a statement from Mayor Jerry L. Demings.
“We knew that the 2014 Orange County ballot initiative regarding nonpartisan elections embodied complex political and legal issues,” Demings said. “The voters deserved for the issues to be clarified by the courts and we have a ruling that, while imperfect, allows us to move forward.”
Read the full court opinion: