Judge twice dismisses lawsuit trying to halt state Cabinet meeting in Israel

Gov. Ron DeSantis called the lawsuit “frivolous" Wednesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Tel Aviv, Israel on Sunday. [Florida Governor's Office]
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Tel Aviv, Israel on Sunday. [Florida Governor's Office]
Published May 29, 2019|Updated May 29, 2019

A lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida state Cabinet seeking to stop their “ceremonial” meeting in Jerusalem Wednesday stalled after a county judge rejected it for the second time in two days. The meeting went on as planned.

Open government advocates said they are reviewing their next steps and expect to reach a decision on how to proceed by early next week.

The First Amendment Foundation, joined by several news organizations including the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, sued the Cabinet in Leon County Circuit Court Tuesday, arguing the Cabinet had violated the state’s open meetings law by meeting 6,000 miles away from Tallahassee and not opening the meeting to the public. They had announced the body would meet in Jerusalem about a week before the trip took place.

But Judge Angela Dempsey, who had been assigned the case, dismissed the initial complaint Tuesday saying that there was no evidence the defendants had been served with the summons in time. In an order released about an hour before the Cabinet met Wednesday, Dempsey rejected a motion to reconsider again, referencing the first decision.

In the half-hour meeting, which took place Wednesday morning Florida time, DeSantis — alongside Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried — heard presentations on a handful of issues including water quality and emergency management and agreed to a resolution affirming the Florida-Israeli relationship.

The meeting was livestreamed on the Florida Channel online and in the Cabinet meeting room in the state Capitol building, which was sparsely filled with some Cabinet aides and members of the media. Reporters accompanying the delegation in Israel were not permitted to use laptops or cellphones while attending the meeting.

In the complaint, the First Amendment Foundation and some of the state’s largest newspapers and publishers, including the Herald, the Times and publishers Gatehouse Media and Gannett, had contended that the broadcast was not enough to satisfy the state’s Sunshine law requirements. State law requires that meetings of public bodies must have reasonable notice, including when and where they will be held, as well as what will be discussed.

“The meeting has been termed an ‘information gathering’ session. But, even crediting this view, the law is clear that ‘information gathering’ sessions fall within the Sunshine Law’s requirements,” lawyers for the groups wrote in the complaint. ”Moreover, the meeting is being held over 6,000 miles away from the citizens of Florida, and in a secured U.S. State Department facility for which the public does not have ready access … Holding a meeting at this distance in such a facility violates the constitutional and statutory rights of Florida citizens (and the news media) to personally observe the workings of, and for the public to offer comment to, their state’s highest officials.”

Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation, said with the meeting concluded that the groups suing would identify how to move forward by the time officials return from the Israel trip.

“It’s not over and we’re not dropping it,” she said, noting they might seek a meeting with the governor to explain what she termed “serious constitutional issues.” “Litigation is certainly an option and it’s still on the table.”

DeSantis called the lawsuit “frivolous” Wednesday and cited the broadcast on the Florida Channel as proof the meeting was still open to the public. “People sometimes just want to cause a ruckus,” he said.

But Petersen said the foundation, while it often joins other suits, rarely is a lead plaintiff in litigation unless they deem it necessary.

“It wasn’t a whim where we go out and file a lawsuit,” she said. The official response to the lawsuit “brings home to me that they really don’t have a thorough understanding of the requirements of the Sunshine law. We don’t take the constitution lightly and neither should our Cabinet.”