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A constitutional showdown over high-speed rail

Civics students, take note! We had a constitutional showdown in Florida last week involving all three branches of our government.

Two members of our state Legislature sued the governor, Rick Scott, because he had rejected $2.4 billion in federal money to build high-speed rail.

With dramatic speed, the judicial branch — the Florida Supreme Court — issued a slam-dunk, unanimous decision in favor of the governor.

Here's a key point. The legal question was not whether high-speed rail in Florida is a boondoggle or a great idea. It was not about whether Scott's decision was wise or idiotic.

The only question in front of the Supreme Court was whether Scott was within his powers to say no.

The two state senators who sued the governor (one Democrat, one Republican) argued that the Legislature had made high-speed rail the official policy of our state.

Didn't the Legislature create a rail agency in 2009? Didn't it pass a law declaring that the agency "shall," meaning must, pursue high-speed rail? Hadn't our previous governor already agreed to take the money?

But now, the senators' legal brief argued (with a hint of a sniff), a "newly elected governor" thinks he can undo it, "simply because he does not agree with the federal directives on how this money is to be spent."

To which the governor replied: yep.

We're not talking about money already appropriated by the Legislature, the governor's lawyer countered.

The fact that rail is the state's "policy" does not automatically translate into saying, "And, by the way, that automatically forces the governor to take any dough that the feds offer to us."

What was the Supreme Court supposed to do, the governor's lawyer asked? Order the Legislature to appropriate the money, then order the governor not to veto it? The first power belongs only to the Legislature, and the second only to the governor — and neither power belongs to the Supreme Court.

On Friday morning, less than 24 hours after the oral arguments, the court issued a one-page order that unanimously sided with the governor. The legislators "have not clearly demonstrated" any grounds, the court said.

Which might kill high-speed rail in Florida, unless supporters can come up with a hail Mary plan to let local governments and not the state take the money and run the show.

It might have been better if the Supreme Court had supplied a little bit of explanation. Surely they could have thrown in a sentence or two saying, "The law doesn't say Scott has to take the dough," or whatever the reason.

But in general, when asked to step into a political fight and to tell the governor how to be governor, the Supreme Court declined. Another fine example of judicial restraint.

A constitutional showdown over high-speed rail 03/05/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2011 1:23pm]
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