Florida Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism Thursday about a challenge by cities and counties to a 2011 state law that threatens stiff penalties if local officials pass gun-related regulations.
During arguments in the closely watched case, justices asked questions and made comments that indicated they did not agree with city and county contentions that the law is unconstitutional.
“You make a very plausible kind of policy argument,” Justice Carlos Muniz said at one point to Edward Guedes, an attorney for the local governments. “But it just doesn’t seem like there’s any sort of constitutional foundation for what you’re talking about.”
At another point, Chief Justice Charles Canady pointed to part of the state Constitution that involves the relationship between the Legislature and municipalities.
“Our (previous) cases are very clear about the superiority of legislative power in this arena. Am I wrong about that?” Canady asked Guedes. “And so that’s why this whole case is kind of mystifying to me because underlying what the Legislature has done (in the gun law) is this express constitutional provision.”
Florida since 1987 has barred cities and counties from passing regulations that are stricter than state firearms laws, and the penalties in the 2011 law were designed to strengthen that “preemption.” The law, for example, could lead to local officials facing $5,000 fines for passing gun regulations.
The case does not challenge the underlying 1987 law but contends the penalties in the 2011 law are unconstitutional, in part, because they violate legal immunities for local officials and governments. Also, Guedes argued that the 2011 law violates the constitutional separation of powers because it would lead to courts delving into the motivations or intentions of local elected officials.
More than 30 cities and counties and dozens of local officials challenged the 2011 law after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 people. State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried joined the challenge, which has drawn briefs from prominent groups on both sides of the issue, including the National Rifle Association and the Giffords and Brady gun-control organizations.
The 1st District Court of Appeal last year upheld the law, spurring the cities and counties to go to the Supreme Court.
While the timing was coincidental, Thursday’s arguments came amid a refueled national debate about gun issues after mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y. Florida Democrats also have sought to force a special legislative session on gun issues, though the idea stands virtually no chance amid Republican opposition.
Along with penalties against individual local officials for passing gun-related regulations, the 2011 law would allow members of the public and organizations to receive damages and attorney fees if they successfully sue local governments for improper gun regulations.
Attorneys for the local governments wrote in a 2019 court document that city and county officials had been urged to take action after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. Those requests involved such things as requiring procedures or documentation to ensure compliance with background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases and requiring reporting of failed background checks.
But the attorneys said local governments refrained from going ahead with the proposals because of the potential penalties in state law.
During Thursday’s arguments, Guedes did not dispute the Legislature’s authority to preempt local decision-making power but took issue with the potential punishments.
“There is no question, underlying all of this is the notion of the preeminence of the state Legislature to preempt substantive areas of law. We don’t disagree with that,” Guedes said. “But this is a legislative firehose to put out a birthday candle.”
While justices had extensive back and forth with Guedes, justices only briefly questioned state Chief Deputy Solicitor General Daniel Bell. In part, Bell pointed to the Legislature’s authority over local governments.
“Local officials have only those powers that are not inconsistent with general law, which means they are subject to the plenary control of the Legislature,” Bell said. “With that hierarchy established, there is no reason the Legislature wouldn’t be able to provide penalties for its statute.”
The Supreme Court typically takes months before issuing rulings. The case stems from three lawsuits that were consolidated in Leon County circuit court. The challenges were filed by cities and counties from various parts of the state, such as Tallahassee, Gainesville, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.
– News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.