TALLAHASSEE — Suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel has asked a circuit judge to decide whether Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority by ousting the embattled law-enforcement officer in January.
DeSantis suspended Israel shortly after taking office, accusing the sheriff of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” related to two mass shootings in Broward County, including the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Israel, a Democrat, appealed his suspension to the Florida Senate, which has the authority to reinstate or remove elected officials. That appeal remains pending.
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But in Thursday’s filing in Broward County circuit court, Israel’s lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, accused DeSantis of having “engineered a political power play” that interfered with the public’s right to determine their elected officials and Israel’s right to execute his duties of office.
“Simply put, the governor’s suspension specifications find Sheriff Israel at fault for the actions of others but does not ascribe any constitutional or statutory duty to him that was neglected or incompetently exercised,” Kuehne wrote in the 36-page petition.
In a document known as a “bill of particulars” filed in the Senate case, the governor accused Israel of being responsible for the deaths of 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as well as five other victims of a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
But in the court filing, Kuehne argued the suspension “is an affront to the Florida Constitution and the fundamental right of voters to choose their elected officials.”
At stake in the case is the constitutional promise that “all political power is inherent in the people,” Kuehne argued.
DeSantis made the suspension of Israel one of his first steps after taking office in January.
The governor acted “in accordance with his Florida constitutional authority” in removing the sheriff “for neglect of duty and incompetence in executing his statutory duties as sheriff of Broward County,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferre said in an email when asked about Thursday’s court action.
“Sheriff Israel’s neglect of duty and incompetence was evident after the tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and the Fort Lauderdale Airport shooting in 2017. It is lamentable that Scott Israel refuses to be held accountable for his actions and continues to hold disregard for the law,” Ferre said.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters Thursday that the circuit-court petition would likely put his chamber’s proceedings on hold.
Kuehne questioned the legislative process, arguing in Thursday’s court filing that it “is a political one, not bound by any considerations of fairness or due process, resulting in the ability of the governor, in tandem with a Legislature of the same political majority, to truncate the term of a good-serving public official for political reasons, all without even a modicum of judicial review.”
He also disputed the bill of particulars that laid out charges against Israel, arguing it “identifies not a single constitutional or statutory duty that was neglected by Sheriff Israel or for which he demonstrated incompetence, the only stated constitutional reasons for his suspension.”
Instead, the bill of particulars “represents a general commentary” on DeSantis’ dissatisfaction with Israel’s policy decisions and operational actions,” Kuehne wrote.
Also, the lawyer blasted DeSantis for blaming the deaths of the airport and school-shooting victims on the sheriff, saying that “the criminal shooters in both instances made individual decisions to kill innocent people and both were apprehended and arrested by law enforcement authorities.”
Arguing that the court was the proper venue to review whether DeSantis had overstepped his authority, Kuehne disputed allegations in the bill of particulars.
For example, Israel was criticized for having an active shooter policy at the time of the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre that said deputies “may” enter an area to save a life.
The policy “was consistent with national standards,” had not been previously criticized by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and mirrored similar policies used by other sheriffs, Kuehne argued.
Also, a “critical incident report” on the airport shooting found “no negligence, incompetence, or neglect of duty” on the part of Israel or his office, Kuehne said. The report criticized the county’s emergency radio system, which Israel had “for years” pressed the county to upgrade, he wrote.
Israel’s lawyer reiterated the sheriff’s argument that his ouster was the fulfillment of a pledge DeSantis made while campaigning for office last year.
As “further evidence of the abjectly political nature of his suspension order,” DeSantis mentioned the removal of Israel during a State of the State speech Tuesday, Kuehne argued.
Kuehne is asking the court for what is known as a writ of quo warranto, requiring DeSantis “to demonstrate both his authority and the jurisdictional basis” to issue the suspension order.
The facts recited in the executive order do not identify any duties Israel exercised in an incompetent manner, Kuehne argued.
Instead, the executive order “merely objects” to the way Israel ran his agency, “and faults him, without any founded factual basis, for the deaths of innocent mass shooting victims at the hands of criminals intending to commit murder,” Kuehne wrote.
“Sheriff Israel cannot be suspended from office as a political ploy because the governor deems the suspension of the democratically elected sheriff to be a convenient fulfillment of a campaign promise and to satisfy the National Rifle Association,” he wrote.
Suspended Okaloosa County Superintendent of Schools Mary Beth Jackson, who was also removed by DeSantis in January, has asked the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on her case. Jackson is arguing that the governor lacked the authority to remove her because of events that took place before she was re-elected in 2016.