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Ray Sansom criminal case raises intriguing issue of separation of powers

One of the big stories this fall in Florida, if it goes off as scheduled on Sept. 29, will be the criminal trial of Ray Sansom, former speaker of our state House.

Now, I am second to no one in lovin' a scandal in the Legislature. The Sansom mess stinks — the community college job he got the same day he became speaker, the money for the school that he got into the state budget, that meeting of the school's trustees 150 miles from home.

Among other things.

And yet, once a guy becomes a defendant, he is entitled to his due. One of the points Sansom raises in his defense is interesting.

Can a legislator really be charged with a crime for the way he writes the state budget? Do the courts have that kind of authority?

We're not talking about deeds that would be crimes in their own right — robbery, extortion, bribery, and so forth. Can writing legislation itself be a criminal act?

Let's take the facts in the light least favorable to Sansom. Let's say he sneaked $6 million into the budget for an aircraft hangar that his buddy Jay Odom wanted, disguising it as a "joint use facility" for classrooms and emergency operations, and lied about it.

To be clear — Sansom denies this. Part of his defense will be that he didn't lie about nothin'. The building really did have classrooms. They really did need an emergency operations center. And so on.

But, again, let's say it was all a dirty deal from the get-go.

The surprising but pertinent question is: So what?

Our state Constitution, after all, gives the Legislature the sole, exclusive power to write the budget. Our Constitution does not say, "Unless we think somebody was lying."

If a member of the Legislature can be charged with "official misconduct" or perjury for misrepresenting the purpose of an appropriation —whoa, Nellie! Happens every time Sen. Bigbutt stands up and says he wants to save puppies, when he's really steering a contract to a big contributor.

The Legislature passes hundreds of bills each session. The budget contains thousands of items. Opening it all up to external second-guessing, with grand juries and elected prosecutors poring over every item to look for "falsification," is a daunting prospect.

At least, that's the point Sansom's lawyer makes in one of his motions to dismiss the charges. The other branches of government, he argues, cannot "attack the actions of the Legislature under the guise of criminal prosecution."

This reminds me of a case in 2001 in which a judge in Tallahassee ordered the Legislature not to hold a committee meeting, under threat of contempt of court. The committee met anyway. The members jokingly brought toothbrushes and jail uniforms.

The Florida Supreme Court blocked the trial judge from holding the Legislature in contempt, quoting precedent:

Florida courts have full authority to review the final product of the legislative process, but they are without authority to review the internal workings of that body.

In no way am I expressing approval of Sansom's actions. Here's looking forward to the arguments of the prosecutors — not to mention Sansom's separate ethics and House disciplinary proceedings.

And yet there is a reminder here, a la Thomas More. Even in chasing the devil himself, let alone a former House speaker, we should be careful not to trample the rule of law, so that it will still be there when somebody is chasing us.

Ray Sansom criminal case raises intriguing issue of separation of powers 08/29/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 1:30pm]
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