(The News Service of Florida) The state Senate — not the Florida Supreme Court — is the proper venue to determine whether Gov. Ron DeSantis was justified in suspending a Panhandle school official, lawyers for the governor argued in a new court filing.
DeSantis, less than a week after he was sworn into office in January, suspended Okaloosa County Superintendent of Schools Mary Beth Jackson, citing “scathing” grand-jury reports that alleged “dereliction of duty.” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran recommended that Jackson be stripped of her post.
Jackson appealed her suspension to the Florida Senate, which has the authority to reinstate or remove elected officials. A pre-hearing in the case was scheduled for March 11, but the Senate proceedings were put on hold after Jackson asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the case.
Jackson’s lawyer, George Levesque, told the court that DeSantis lacked the authority to remove her from office, in part because the allegations against her pertain to events that occurred before her re-election in 2016.
But in a filing Wednesday at the Supreme Court, Nicholas Primrose, DeSantis’ deputy general counsel, blasted that argument, chiding Jackson’s attorney for relying on a 1912 advisory opinion to bolster his position.
“The Florida Constitution provides no restraint on the governor’s consideration of prior acts for the grounds of suspension. There is no textual bar to the governor looking prior to an official’s election,” Primrose wrote in the 37-page document.
Jackson’s suspension stemmed from allegations that a teacher abused developmentally challenged pre-kindergarten students at an elementary school during the 2015-2016 school year.
The grand jury reports alleged that Jackson, among other things, failed to implement proper procedures for reporting abuse to the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Education and failed to implement a proper procedure for removing teachers facing allegations involving the health or safety of students.
In Wednesday’s court filing, Primrose wrote that “evidence suggests” Jackson “knew about the allegations of suspected child abuse and eventual findings from an internal investigation” prior to her re-election in November 2016.
“Evidence also suggests that the petitioner (Jackson) took certain steps in the months leading up to her re-election to minimize public discussion of the internal investigation findings. To be sure, the voters of Okaloosa County did not become aware of the child abuse investigation until after the election, in the summer of 2017, and, the full extent of petitioner’s involvement and knowledge of the child abuse was not public until the grand jury released its reports in 2018,” the governor’s lawyer wrote.
“The facts and circumstances providing grounds” for Jackson’s suspension “were not limited to months before her current term” as superintendent, “but rather transcend terms and years,” he wrote.
Primrose also argued that the Senate should resolve the suspension dispute.
The Senate has “the exclusive authority” to remove or reinstate a suspended official, unless the governor reinstates the officer first, and “acts as an explicit, direct and effective check on the executive suspension power,” Primrose wrote.
The Florida Constitution grants the governor the authority to suspend a county officer for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony.”
DeSantis’ lawyer asked the Supreme Court to deny Jackson’s request that it rule on the case.
“Courts are not to displace the discretion of the governor to suspend by deciding whether a public officer’s suspension is warranted under the factual allegations and circumstances,” he wrote.
In Jackson’s March 1 petition to the Supreme Court, Levesque argued that officials cannot be removed for acts that happened prior to their current terms because “the intervening election cleanses the taint of allegations occurring prior to the current term in office.”
But Primrose disputed that argument, saying that, “while re-election may cleanse the public official in her own eyes, the governor’s authority to suspend transcends elections or terms of office.”
DeSantis also is defending his power to strip elected officials from their posts in a separate lawsuit. In another of his first acts as governor, DeSantis suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, accusing the embattled law enforcement officer 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 also appealed his suspension to the Senate but later asked a Broward County circuit judge to take over the case. DeSantis’ lawyers last week asked Judge David Haimes to dismiss the case.