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Local Governments Want Florida Supreme Court To Decide Gun Case

Firearms prohibited sign on the glass entrance of a door
Since 1987, Florida has barred municipalities from passing regulations that are stricter than state firearms laws. Penalties in the 2011 law were designed to strengthen that “preemption.”

Pointing to “far-reaching, statewide implications,” local governments want the Florida Supreme Court to rule in a case about a 2011 state law that threatens tough penalties if city and county officials approve gun-related regulations.

Attorneys for the local governments filed a motion Friday requesting that the 1st District Court of Appeal send to the Supreme Court key issues in the case --- a move known as certifying “questions of great public importance.”

The motion, filed Friday, came two weeks after a panel of the Tallahassee-based appeals court upheld the constitutionality of the 2011 law, which was challenged by 30 cities, three counties and more than 70 local 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 and potential removal from office for passing gun regulations.

The challenge has contended the threatened penalties infringe on types of immunity that help shield public officials from lawsuits over their decision-making and actions. In asking for the Supreme Court to rule in the case, attorneys for the cities and counties wrote that the appellate court’s April 9 rationale could be applied to other issues not related to the gun law.

“Thousands of elected officials, irrespective of political party, in hundreds of local governments throughout the state, take oaths of office to serve the public good and represent their constituents; and they do so believing that their quintessentially legislative act of voting in favor of an ordinance will not subject them to either liability or a judicial inquisition into their motives,” the motion said. “In light of the questions of great public importance at issue in subjecting such public servants to dissection of thought and motive in fulfilling their legislative obligation to vote, it is appropriate for the Florida Supreme Court to reconcile the competing constitutional interests in this case, to weigh the pronouncements of the U.S. Supreme Court on the importance of local legislative immunity, and to decide whether the Legislature’s desire to punish local elected officials can survive that inquiry.”

Local governments and officials filed three lawsuits challenging the 2011 law after the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 people. The lawsuits, which were ultimately consolidated in Leon County circuit court, included cities and counties from various parts of the state, such as Tallahassee, Gainesville, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

The local governments and officials did not challenge the underlying 1987 preemption law but contended the penalties in the 2011 law were unconstitutional. The April 9 appellate court ruling focused on arguments that the 2011 law should be rejected because of legal concepts known as “government function immunity” and “legislative immunity.”

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 up to $100,000 and attorney fees if they successfully sue local governments for improper gun regulations.

A Leon County circuit judge in 2019 found that parts of the National Rifle Association-backed law were unconstitutional, but the appellate panel overturned that ruling.

“Appellees argue that entities adopting firearm or ammunition regulations stricter than the Legislature’s are properly exercising their rights to discretion in governance, and that immunity derived from the separation of powers doctrine shields the exercise of that discretion,” appellate Judge Susan Kelsey wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Judge Stephanie Ray and Judge Brad Thomas. “The trial court accepted this reasoning, but we reject it.”

But in the motion Friday, attorneys for the local governments wrote that “no court had previously held that a local government may be subjected to liability simply because a court subsequently determines the enacted legislation is, in fact, preempted.”

“For decades, hundreds of local governments throughout Florida have relied upon governmental function immunity to engage in local governance, in making the wholly discretionary, policy-driven determinations of what legislation to enact for the benefit of their residents,” the motion said. “This (appellate) court’s opinion for the first time holds that such immunity may, notwithstanding any separation of powers concerns, be stripped away from local governments simply because a court later determines that particular local legislation was preempted.”