TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel's due-process rights were not violated when the Florida Senate refused to reinstate the veteran law enforcement official after Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended him from office, a federal judge has ruled.
Israel turned to the federal court following an October special legislative session in which the Senate formally removed Israel from office. The lawsuit alleged that the Senate's process was unfair and named Senate President Bill Galvano and DeSantis as defendants.
But in dismissing the case Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said Israel failed to prove that the legislative proceedings violated his due-process rights.
"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. 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 relitigate the merits of plaintiff's suspension and removal," Walker wrote in an 81-page ruling.
The Republican governor made Israel's removal one of his first acts after taking office in January 2019, alleging incompetence in the handling of mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
The judge said Israel, a Democrat, "does not have standing to bring this suit against defendant DeSantis." The Senate has the authority to remove or reinstate elected officials who have been suspended by the governor.
Although he expressed 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."
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 gave Israel's lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, until May 15 to amend the complaint, with a caution that he may not "replead around facts he knows to exist."
DeSantis accused Israel of incompetence and "neglect of duty" for the handling of the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 students and faculty members and a 2017 mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport that killed five people.
In asking Walker to dismiss the case, the governor's attorneys argued that DeSantis is not responsible for any alleged violation of Israel's rights, because the Senate conducted the proceedings leading to the vote that resulted in the sheriff's removal.
The Senate's lawyers argued, in part, that the Senate is shielded from liability for legislative acts.
During a 3 ½-hour hearing conducted by telephone on March 27, Kuehne told Walker that the legislative immunity did not apply in the Senate's removal of Israel because the Senate essentially was behaving as a court and not as a legislative body deciding on political or policy-related matters.
Kuehne also argued that the Florida Constitution requires that the removal of an elected official be based on "evidentiary consideration."
Israel's lawyer maintained that the Senate changed its rules after a special master, appointed by Galvano, held a trial and concluded that DeSantis' lawyers failed to present adequate evidence to justify Israel's removal. Special Master Dudley Goodlette recommended that the lawman be reinstated.
The Senate Rules Committee in October considered Goodlette's report and heard emotional testimony from members of 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 insisted that, following the trial, Israel was denied a "meaningful" opportunity to be heard as required by the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment.
Walker agreed Tuesday that Galvano is not entitled to legislative immunity from the lawsuit. But the judge 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 that official from office.
Israel had several months' notice of the charges against him, had the opportunity to subpoena witnesses, take depositions and cross-examine witnesses and present substantial documentary evidence, Walker pointed out. The former sheriff --- who is running for election this year to his old job --- was given repeated opportunities to argue his case and respond to DeSantis' arguments, both orally and in writing, 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.
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," Walker concluded.
(©2020 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)
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