FL Supreme Court rejects late challenge to Amendment 3, which would end party primaries

By: - October 28, 2020 1:00 pm

The Florida Supreme Court building. Credit: Colin Hackley

The Florida Supreme Court has dismissed a late legal challenge to the proposed Constitutional Amendment 3, which would end partisan political primary elections in Florida in favor of a “top two” system in which Republicans, Democrats, and nonaffiliated voters would participate.

In a unanimous ruling on Wednesday, the justices rejected a petition filed on Oct. 13, while early voting was already underway, that they order election officials not to count votes cast on the proposed amendment.

“To be entitled to mandamus relief, the petitioner must have a clear legal right to the requested relief, the respondent must have an indisputable legal duty to perform the requested action, and the petitioner must have no other adequate remedy available,” the court said in a terse response.

“Because petitioner has failed to demonstrate any of those things, we deny the petition. No motion for rehearing, clarification, or reinstatement will be entertained by this court,” the justices said.

Writs of mandamus order officials to perform duties they are obligated by statute or the constitution to fulfill and are rarely granted. In this case, the petition cited two studies suggesting the amendment would make it more difficult for Black voters to elect Black members of the state House and Senate.

Chris Sprowls, slated to become House speaker next year, is shown with colleagues on the House floor in 2017. Credit: Florida House photo

Both studies were completed in July but gained wide attention only after the Legislative Black Caucus spread the news during a press conference in September — months after the Supreme Court cleared the measure for the ballot in March.

The court didn’t deign to comment about that argument.

Glenn Burhans Jr., chairman of the All Voters Vote committee backing the amendment, dismissed the studies at issue, noting that they didn’t account for minority voters among the 3.7 million Floridians registered as no party preference, or NPAs.

The named plaintiff was Glenton Gilzean, CEO of the Central Florida Urban League, but House Speaker-designate Chris Sprowls, a Republican, and Sen. Janet Cruz, a Democrat, promoted the case during a news conference on the day it landed in the court. The named defendants were Secretary of State Laurel Lee and the Elections Canvassing Commission, who argued against the petition.

Glenn Burhans Jr. Credit: Stearns Weaver

Sprowls and Cruz issued a joint written statement:

“Today’s court decision allows an ill-conceived ballot amendment to be voted on before all the implications are understood. This amendment will change elections in ways no one can accurately predict and may result in a loss of representation by certain demographic groups or geographic regions. Amendment 3 could do irreparable harm to our political process.”

Burhans issued the following statement:

“From the beginning this has been an abuse of the judicial process and mere political theater by the two major political parties. The Secretary of State, governor and Cabinet argued that the lawsuit was unjustified and based upon reports ‘that bear no indicia of reliability’ — in other words, a sham. We are glad to see that the Florida Supreme Court unanimously agreed and rejected the claim out of hand, while also taking the extraordinary step to preemptively rule that no rehearing, clarification, or reinstatement will be entertained by the court. It is time for the voters to decide whether to let All Voters Vote.”

If approved by 60 percent of the voters, Amendment 3 would throw candidates for any office into one pool for voters to select from, sending the top two vote-getters into the general election, regardless of their party.

That could mean general elections involving two Republicans or two Democrats or two members of some other party or none. It’s called a “top two” or “jungle” primary and would apply to elections for governor, the Florida Cabinet, and the Legislature.

The initiative is backed by Miguel “Mike” Fernandez, a billionaire former GOP fundraiser who quit the party because of Donald Trump. He spent nearly $6.8 million on the campaign. In theory, involving unaffiliated voters would produce more centrist and less polarizing general election candidates.

Update: This story has been updated to include comments from Glenn Burhans, Chris Sprowls, and Janet Cruz.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.