Despite clear frustrations of some justices, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday declined to invalidate Gov. Rick Scott's veto of $37.4 million that lawmakers approved to compensate homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were cut down by the state more than a decade ago.
The ruling pointed to circuit-court cases in Broward and Lee counties aimed at forcing the state to pay judgments in class-action lawsuits won by homeowners. In going to the Supreme Court, attorneys for the homeowners argued, in part, that quick action was needed because of the July 1 start of the state's fiscal year.
Lawmakers included the money in the state budget for the new fiscal year, but Scott vetoed it.
“The petitioners do not provide any support for an immediate need for this (Supreme) Court to resolve the issue,” said the majority opinion fully shared by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson. “Nothing about the start of the new fiscal year prevents the respective circuit courts from issuing the relief requested, if those courts determine that relief is commanded by the facts and law.”
But Pariente, in a concurring opinion joined by Justice Peggy Quince, criticized the state for delaying payments to the homeowners, whose healthy trees were cut down as the state tried to eradicate citrus canker disease.
“This is yet another chapter in which the ill-fated protagonists, the petitioners in this case, who had healthy citrus trees destroyed by the state in 2002 and 2003, continue to be thwarted in their attempt to obtain full and just compensation,” Pariente wrote. “Rather than reaching a final conclusion in the saga … the legislative appropriations for the full amounts of the final judgments were vetoed by the governor, prompting the petition filed in this (Supreme) Court. Despite the petitioners having obtained final judgments, the validity of which are not contested, the state has fought payment on these judgments over many years, requiring the petitioners to navigate a legal obstacle course.”
In a scathing dissent, Justice R. Fred Lewis called Thursday's ruling a “sad day for Florida citizens” and pointed to a constitutional obligation for the state to make payments for taking property.
“This is not a game and our citizens should not be toyed with as if a yo-yo, and yet that is exactly what this veto accomplishes,” Lewis wrote. “Now, with the opportunity to stop this 10-year game of yo-yo, this (Supreme) Court abdicates its responsibility when it allows state actors to disregard their constitutional obligation by playing further games of delay and obfuscation. Justice demands that it stop now.”
The homeowners in Broward and Lee counties won judgments against the state because of the removal of 167,677 healthy trees on 70,036 residential properties from 2000 to 2006, according to court documents.
The state, however, has not paid the judgments. In vetoing the money this year, Scott cited “ongoing litigation” as the reason — an explanation also cited by a spokesman after Thursday's ruling.
“It is unfortunate what happened to these Floridians over a decade ago and Governor Scott sincerely understands their concern," spokesman John Tupps said in an email. "Due to ongoing litigation, the $37.4 million in the budget was not approved. We are hopeful that all litigation regarding this issue will be completely resolved, allowing the issue to be addressed comprehensively across the state.”
In court documents, attorneys for the homeowners disputed the explanation about ongoing litigation, saying the judgments in the Broward and Lee cases are final. They said the only ongoing litigation involves a case in Miami-Dade County.
A Lee County judge on June 28 issued an order directing the state to pay Lee County homeowners. But the order also gave the state 40 days to make the payments or respond with why it refuses to do so.
In Thursday's dissent, Lewis wrote that the circuit judge, Keith Kyle, “has already recognized that the time for payment is now.”
“We simply cannot allow another 10 years to go by for the executive to continue playing games of hide the money through a veto power and word games in the courts,” Lewis wrote.