Justice Delayed is Court-Sanctioned Justice Denied

Justice Delayed is Court-Sanctioned Justice Denied

Land Acquisition Trust Fund Case is Called for Time?

TALLAHASSEE, FL — Leon County Circuit Court Judge Layne Smith issued his order today in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF) case. Sierra Club Florida released the following statement in response: 

"The court today dismissed the case on the theory the case was filed in 2015 and was unreasonably delayed by the conservationists. The decision belies the facts:

  • the Conservationists won the case in 2018, but the win was reversed by the appeals court in 2019;
  • the case has hardly been languishing — today's order is the 633rd document filed in the case;
  • 140 documents have been filed in the case since the conservationist's win in 2018;
  • one year ago, the trial court ruled that the Conservationists were correct in their interpretation of the constitution and that the Legislature had narrowly escaped losing the case on summary judgment;
  • the Conservationists' repeated efforts to advance the case were rejected repeatedly by the new judge (see especially pages 4-5 in the case status memorandum); and
  • in March 2021, the same judge rejected the Conservationists' constitutional challenge to the legislature’s delaying strategy.   

Judge Layne Smith's decision affords the Florida Legislature the ability to use the tax money from the 2014 Constitutional Water & Land Conservation Initiative (Amendment 1) for anything from 1000 camouflage baseball hats gifted to farmers, DirectTV service, and computer monitors for DEP offices, to tens of millions of dollars for salaries and overtime having nothing to do with conservation or recreation lands, instead of spending that money to acquire and manage parks and other land for outdoor recreation and environmental services as voters intended. 

We are confounded by this new order. Judge Dodson, now retired, first decided that the obvious meaning of the state constitution was that the LATF was to be spent only to acquire and restore recreation and conservation land. Judge Smith did not find the opposite but rather, found that the case is moot because too much time has passed, and the Legislature has already spent the money in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. 

This new order delivers the message that the will of the voters is meaningless. The court's decision avoids ruling on the Legislature's argument that there should be no significant confines on its spending to ensure that the money voters set aside for conservation is not used as a general slush fund.   

If this order stands, the Legislature will be free to thumb its collective nose at the will of the voters and arrogate to itself undeserved prerogatives as long as it can prolong the court process. This cannot be correct, and we will challenge this order. 

In 2014, the Florida Water and Land Legacy constitutional amendment was adopted by Florida voters, by a 75% margin, based on a ballot summary — the only thing voters saw when they cast their ballots — explaining that 33% of taxes on real estate sales would be put into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and spent to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation land. On average, that would provide over $1 billion annually to acquire and restore parks and other outdoor recreation land, including sanctuaries for wildlife.  

And yet, from the adoption of the amendment to this day the Legislature has devoted less annual funding for acquiring and restoring conservation lands, in real dollar value, than the Florida Legislature of over 30 years ago. This is especially egregious when considering the inextricable links between land conservation, water quality, and climate change mitigation.

Governor DeSantis' current budget is a case in point; he wants to devote millions of dollars to construct (1) the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir, sure to become a deep cesspool of polluted water with nowhere to go, and (2) Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells near Lake Okeechobee, instead of acquiring and restoring the land that would treat and convey clean water south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.  These are not restoration projects but rather stop-gap measures that keep campaign contributors in the development, construction, and sugar industries happy and well-paid.  And yet the court says that our (the plaintiffs') claims "no longer present an actual case in controversy"?

The 2014 constitutional amendment would never have been drafted or adopted if the Legislature had not stopped acquiring desperately needed conservation land, thereby frustrating the public into supporting it. Now the same Legislature is frustrating the same public by ignoring the constitutional amendment.  

Sierra Club Florida calls on the Legislature to immediately drop their opposition to the lawsuit and get on with the job of protecting the environment and the heritage upon which Floridians and the state’s economy depends."

Background: To render its September 26, 2013, advisory opinion to the Attorney General on the title and ballot summary of the initiative petition, the Supreme Court had to consider the text of the amendment in order to determine its accuracy, and having done so, they held that "The title and summary are straightforward and accurate." Voters saw only this "straightforward and accurate" ballot title and a ballot summary, which stated that the funds would be used "to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands." 

The 2015 Legislature ignored the clear meaning of the title, "Dedicates Funds to Acquire and Restore Florida Conservation and Recreation Land" and the summary, and decided instead to spend most of the money on salaries and expenses of state employees, leading a coalition of conservationists, including the Sierra Club, to sue the legislature in an effort to stop the legislature from using the money as a slush fund.

A Leon County Circuit Judge decided that the money could be used only on new parks and conservation lands, but the First District Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 that expenditures were not restricted to newly acquired land. In 2020, when the case was sent back to the circuit court in Tallahassee, the court decided that the obvious meaning of the constitutional text allowed the money to be spent only on buying, restoring, and managing conservation lands — like parks or sanctuaries for wildlife.