In a resounding victory that will help bolster liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday shot down a challenge to a statute providing penalties for local government officials attempting to impose stricter gun control regulations, as the Tampa Bay Times reports.
The high court’s justices ruled 5-1 that a 2011 law that strengthened penalties for local officials who pass gun control measures more stringent than those in existence under state statute is indeed constitutional and should stand.
Under the state law at issue, local officials could face penalties of $5,000 for promulgating strong gun control rules, and those standing in opposition to such regulations would also be free to sue those local governments and receive damages and legal fees if they prevailed in their cases.
Those provisions were challenged by 33 Florida cities and counties and a host of local leaders, including Tallahassee and Leon Counties, as the Tallahassee Democrat noted.
Though the municipalities and officials who opposed the 2011 law did not challenge the underlying 1987 statute establishing that state gun laws preempted local rules, they argued that the sanctions contained in the 2011 law ran afoul of legal immunities typically afforded to government officials even at the local level.
The challengers also contended that the 2011 statute was inconsistent with the doctrine of separation of powers in that it would result in the judicial branch attempting to divine the intentions or motivations of local leaders.
Writing for the majority of the court was Justice Ricky Polston, who was joined by Chief Justice Carlos Muniz as well as Justices Charles Canady, John Couriel, and Jamie Grosshans, as the Times noted.
In the majority’s view, there was no merit to the argument that the 2011 statute was in violation of “governmental function immunity,” given that “[i]t is not a core municipal function to occupy an area that the Legislature has preempted.”
Polston added, “local governments have no lawful discretion or authority to enact ordinances that violate state preemption.”
Justice Jorge Labarga authored a dissent in the case, opining that separation of powers could not be maintained under the 2011 law, because judges would be empowered to assess whether the acts of local officials in enacting gun regulations contrary to state law were done in a knowing and willful manner.
“[The] requirement of judicial involvement in determining whether the action of the public official was ‘knowing and willful’ amounts to nothing less than an impermissible intrusion into the official’s legislative thought process, and it undermines the official’s ability to effectuate the constituents’ will,” the justice wrote.
Though the outcome in the case will certainly be a disappointment to officials in the aforementioned Leon and Tallahassee Counties, it will also come as a blow to local governments in Gainesville, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach, and St. Petersburg, who also joined in the litigation.
Lawyers for the local governmental units had explained during earlier stages of the court battle that citizens had urged action in the aftermath of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, including the implementation of enhanced background check compliance measures and gun purchase waiting periods, but officials held off on further action due to the penalties contained in the 2011 statute.
Though city and county officials may be reeling from the 5-1 decision, Thursday’s ruling represents a significant win for Florida Republicans and Second Amendment advocates alike.