Federal judge overturns Florida law banning elected officials from lobbying other governments

A federal judge has ruled that Florida’s attempt to prevent elected officials from lobbying other governments is unconstitutional.

The law, which went into effect on Jan. 1, had an immediate impact. Some elected officials who worked as lobbyists stopped. Others resigned their government posts before the new law went into effect.

The most high-profile South Florida example was Lubby Navarro, who resigned as a member of the Miami-Dade County School Board in December. That move allowed her to continue working as a lobbyist for the South Broward Hospital District, the government agency that uses the public brand name as Memorial Healthcare System for its network of hospitals and health services in the southern third of the county.

The ruling won’t change Navarro’s situation. She is out of office and has been replaced.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom sided with elected officials who argued their First Amendment rights were violated by the Florida law. During the course of the case, Bloom had removed several plaintiffs from the case because she said they lacked standing; at the end only Miami-Dade County Commissioner René Garcia remained.

In a ruling signed Wednesday, Bloom said regulations applied to people currently serving in office “are not content neutral because they facially discriminate by subject matter” and that the state failed to show the restrictions “are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.”

The regulations, Bloom wrote, “broadly prohibit the speech of professional lobbyists who lobby on specific issues, yet they fully permit other types of lobbying activity. The State carries the heavy burden of assuaging these concerns with evidence that the In-Office Restrictions are in fact ‘narrowly tailored to serve’ the compelling interest of preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.”

“The Court is not evaluating the popularity of the In-Office Restrictions, but rather its constitutionality. The fact that the majority of Floridians supported the Amendment does not constitute evidence that it is narrowly tailored to address the problem of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance,’ she wrote.

The law applied to all manner of elected officials: statewide officeholders including the governor, state legislators, county commissioners, countywide officials, school board members, mayors, and city, town and village commissioners. Many of those elected positions aren’t full time jobs.

It banned them from lobbying for money while in office on issues of policy, appropriations or procurement before any other level of government: federal, state or local.

The law stemmed from an amendment voters added to the Florida Constitution in 2018. In 2018, Florida added strict new lobbying restrictions to the state Constitution. Voters overwhelmingly supported the amendment, which received 78.9% of the vote.

Last year, the Legislature passed laws implementing the restrictions, including a $10,000 fine for violations.

Five elected officials filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 21 seeking to block implementation of the law and asking that it be ruled unconstitutional. At year’s end, Bloom rejected a request by attorneys for the plaintiffs to block the law from going into effect.

In February Bloom temporarily blocked enforcement of the part of the law that prohibited elected officials from paid lobbying on behalf of clients before any other government.

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom, shown in a 2018 photo, blocked Florida's strict new law banning elected officials from lobbying any level of government while they're in office. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Amy Beth Bennett / Sun Sentinel

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom, shown in a 2018 photo, blocked Florida’s strict new law banning elected officials from lobbying any level of government while they’re in office.

In March, Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office filed a notice that it intended to appeal Bloom’s February ruling. Moody’s office did not have a reaction to this week’s ruling or say whether an appeal is planned. “We are reviewing the decision,” communications director Kylie Mason said Friday via email.

The plaintiffs attorneys included several prominent names. They were represented by Scott Hiaasen, Kendall Coffey, Ben Kuehne, Michael T. Davis, Robert H. Fernandez, and Ron Book.

In the February ruling, Bloom said plaintiffs didn’t have standing to challenge another part of the law that imposes a lengthy ban — six years — on certain lobbying activities by former government officials once they leave office.

The constitutional amendment was put forward by former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, when he served on the Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years to propose changes.

He said in 2020 that he pushed for it because of what he saw during his time in the Senate from 2006 to 2016. “I saw circumstances where people I served with in the Legislature spent their last year in the Legislature basically as an audition for which lobbying firm they could get hired by.”

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sunsentinel.com, on Twitter @browardpolitics and on Post.news/@browardpolitics

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