THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 11, 2015……….In a unanimous ruling, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider a challenge to a 2013 law that allows elected officials to use blind trusts to shield their financial assets.
The ruling came a year after the case was filed by Jim Apthorp, who was chief of staff to the late Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew when voters passed the open-government Sunshine Amendment in 1976.
Apthorp has contended that allowing public officials to place their assets in blind trusts violates the Sunshine Amendment’s constitutional requirement that officials fully disclose their financial interests.
But the 1st District Court of Appeal in February tossed out the case, pointing to its “speculative nature” — in part because Apthorp did not allege that any public official or candidate had used a blind trust in the most-recent financial disclosures for the 2014 election season.
Apthorp’s attorney, Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, said the issue could remain alive, despite a series of adverse rulings.
“We’ve lost the case, but if anyone files for office using the blind-trust statute, we can re-open it,” said D’Alemberte, who has served as a lawmaker, president of the American Bar Association and president of Florida State University.
The Republican-dominated Legislature unanimously passed the 2013 law allowing the use of blind trusts.
Supporters say blind trusts prevent conflicts of interest between officials’ public duties and financial interests. A blind trust gives someone else the ability to manage investments without a politician’s knowledge, but it doesn’t require the same level of detailed disclosure about officials’ holdings as is typically required.
Gov. Rick Scott used a blind trust during his first term in office, but ended it last year and listed his financial assets as he qualified for re-election. That disclosure showed Scott’s net worth at $132.7 million. After the disclosure, Scott put his assets in a new blind trust.
Apthorp first asked the Florida Supreme Court to hear the politically charged case in May 2014, but the justices sent it to Leon County circuit court, where Judge John Cooper ruled in July that the blind-trust law was constitutional.
Apthorp appealed Cooper’s ruling, but the appeals court found that Cooper should not even have ruled on the constitutional question and ordered him to dismiss the lawsuit.
Now, with the Supreme Court unanimous in turning down the case, D’Alemberte pointed to the appeals-court ruling as the basis for bringing back a constitutional challenge. The appeals court indicated that the blind-trust law could raise constitutional issues.
“This case presents an important constitutional question, namely whether a public officer who includes a qualified blind trust authorized under (the section of state law) in any financial disclosure required by law complies with the requirement for full and public disclosure found in (the state Constitution),” said the appeals-court ruling, written by Judge Lori Rowe and joined by judges Timothy Osterhaus and Brad Thomas. “However, notwithstanding the substantial interest in this case from the bench and bar, we are constrained to leave for another day the resolution of this constitutional question because this case lacks a justiciable controversy.”
In a concurring opinion, Thomas wrote that “our conclusion on jurisdiction should not be read as an imprimatur on the statute’s constitutional validity.”
D’Alemberte said Askew proposed the Sunshine Amendment only after the Legislature had declined for years to pass disclosure requirements.
With Askew leading the effort in 1976, Florida voters approved the Sunshine Amendment with more than 79 percent of the vote.
“And even after it was adopted, (Askew) was still fighting with the Legislature, trying to keep them from watering it down,” D’Alemberte said. “Making this information available is a critical part of open government.”
However, state Solicitor General Allen Winsor, who represented Secretary of State Ken Detzner before the appeals court, argued that the 2013 law “is consistent with the overall purpose of the Sunshine Amendment, which was to enhance trust in government, enhance trust in public officials.”