Gov. Rick Scott OVERSTEPPED his constitutional authority and undermined the Legislature's power in his effort to unilaterally take control of rulemaking by state agencies. That was the logical ruling of the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday, and it is a basic lesson that the former private hospital CEO and an acquiescent state Legislature should take to heart. Being the governor of Florida comes with extraordinary power, but the constitutional limits on that power are consequential.
Tuesday's 5-2 opinion stemmed from a case that is a reminder that even the most mundane matters in government affect people's lives. Rosalie Whiley, a blind food stamp recipient from Opa-Locka, charged that Scott's executive order that suspended all rulemaking shortly after his Jan. 4 inauguration could keep her from getting benefits. The freeze on rulemaking stalled a pending challenge to a Department of Children and Families rule that Whiley said made it too hard for some disabled people to submit applications for continued benefits.
Ultimately, the court never addressed Whiley's allegations or the bureaucratic morass the governor's executive order created. The justices simply ruled that Scott exceeded his constitutional authority when he ordered all agencies under his purview to forward pending rules to his newly created Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform for review and approval.
The governor contended the new office would merely review the pending rules to ensure they were fiscally prudent and wouldn't discourage business investment in the state. His lawyers eventually argued that the "supreme executive power" granted to the governor in the state Constitution allowed him to intervene because he had supervisory authority over some state agencies. It was an argument embraced by the two dissenting justices, who are also the court's most conservative members, Charles Canady and Herb Polston.
But Scott doesn't have supervisory authority when it comes to rulemaking, the majority of justices stated unequivocally. Rules — the method by which state laws are actually implemented by a specific state agency — are the sole purview of the Legislature. And when lawmakers delegate that authority in state law, they do so to the agency heads and no one else.
By halting the rulemaking process, Scott encroached on the Legislature's power, violating the separation of powers that helps ensure no branch of state government would ever be too powerful.
In a different era, it wouldn't have taken a blind woman dependent on public assistance to challenge Florida's micromanaging governor. Republican legislative leaders were too busy kowtowing to their new governor in January to protect the lines of authority. They should have been first in line to force Scott to step back, ideally by suggestion and then by stronger language. Or they could have followed the led of then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, who took then-Gov. Charlie Crist to court in 2008 over his unilateral decision to negotiate a gambling compact with the Seminole Indian tribe.
The Florida Supreme Court has sent Scott a needed lesson on the Florida Constitution. The Legislature should heed it, too.