Former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel’s chances of being reinstated were reduced this week, following a federal judge’s ruling.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled on Tuesday that Israel’s due-process rights were not violated when the Florida Senate refused to reinstate him after he was suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Israel’s lawsuit named Senate President Bill Galvano and DeSantis as defendants.
In dismissing the case this week, Walker wrote in his 81-page ruling, “This court understands why plaintiff, believing the blame for numerous brutal murders has been unfairly and undeservedly laid at his feet, might feel wronged. He believes he was scapegoated and then railroaded, without a fair chance to defend himself.”
He continued, “But the issue in this case is not whether defendants made the right decision in removing plaintiff from office, and this court is not a forum to re-litigate the merits of plaintiff’s suspension and removal.”
Gov. DeSantis removed Israel from the position in January 2019, alleging incompetence in the former sheriff’s handling of mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport the year before that.
The judge added that Israel, “does not have standing to bring this suit against defendant DeSantis.”
In addition, the state Senate has the authority to remove or reinstate elected officials who the governor has suspended.
Although he showed empathy for Israel, Walker said the issue before the court was not whether the process “was perfect or could have been fairer or more robust, nor whether it conformed to Florida law.”
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The “sole issue” is “whether the process plaintiff alleges he received satisfies the requirements of due process clause,” the judge wrote.
“Due process does not guarantee a perfect process, nor any particular process, and plaintiff cannot use the due process clause to force the Florida Senate to provide him a more exhaustive procedure just because he believes it would have been better to do so,” Walker wrote.
Walker also gave Israel’s lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, until May 15 to amend the complaint, cautioning he may not “replead around facts he knows to exist.”
The Senate’s lawyers have argued that the Senate is shielded from being held liable for legislative acts.
Kuehne told Walker during a hearing in March that the legislative immunity does not apply in this case, because the Senate was essentially acting as a court rather than as a legislative body that was deciding on political or policy-related matters. He added that the state’s Constitution requires that the removal of an elected official be based on “evidentiary consideration.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s lawyer argues that the Senate changed its rules after a special master, who was appointed by Galvano, held a trial and concluded at that time that DeSantis’ lawyers failed to present adequate evidence justifying Israel’s suspension. Special Master Dudley Goodlette recommended that Israel be reinstated.
Last October, the Senate Rules Committee considered Goodlette’s report and heard testimony from the public, including two parents of children who died in the Parkland school massacre. Days before the meeting, the committee accepted testimony that had not been submitted during the June trial. The committee supported removing Israel from office. In a 25-15 vote on Oct. 23, the Republican-dominated full Senate stripped Israel from office.
Kuehne says his client was denied a “meaningful” opportunity to be heard following the trial, as is required by the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment.
Walker agreed last Tuesday that Galvano is not entitled to have legislative immunity from the lawsuit. However, the judge also found that the due-process clause “does not require a suspended official to receive a process amounting to a full-blown civil trial” before the Senate can remove the official from office.
Sheriff Israel had several months’ notice of the charges against him, the opportunity to subpoena witnesses, take depositions and cross-examine witnesses, and present substantial documentary evidence, Walker wrote.
“Plaintiff seeks to use the due process clause to transform the Florida Senate’s removal proceedings into an appeal from the special master hearing, with the Florida Senate being bound to the record before the special master and serving the limited role of reviewing his conclusion according to a narrow set of delineated rules; but the due process clause imposes no such restrictions,” the judge said.
Walker concluded that taking “the facts alleged in the complaint and as supplemented by the voluminous attachments to the complaint — in the light most favorable to plaintiff, it does not state a due process claim.”