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Land Use and Local Government Law and Litigation

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Who's Got Discretion? We Got Discretion! How Much Discretion? Too Much Discretion!

The Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion regarding when a "delegation" of powers goes too far that all land use practioners should be aware of.

In Fla. Dep't of State, Div. of Elections v. Martin, here's the link, the court upheld a First District ruling that "section 101.253(2) is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers under article II, section 3 because the Legislature has impermissibly delegated to the executive branch absolute, unfettered discretion to determine whether to grant or deny a candidate’s request to withdraw after the forty-second day before an election."

The statute stated that "The Department of State may in its discretion allow such a candidate to withdraw after the 42nd day before an election upon receipt of a written notice, sworn to under oath, that the candidate will not accept the nomination or office for which he or she qualified." The court held that this did not provided adequate guidelines.

This opinion, along with the Florida Supreme Court's decision in the Schiavo case (yes, it turned on improper delegation as much as or more than privacy), reiterates Florida's strong policy agains the delegation of essentially legislative authority to the executive.

The policy behind this is longstanding:

This Court has traditionally applied a “strict separation of powers
doctrine,” State v. Cotton, 769 So. 2d 345, 353 (Fla. 2000), which “encompasses
two fundamental prohibitions.” Chiles v. Children A, B, C, D, E, & F, 589
So. 2d 260, 264 (Fla. 1991). “The first is that no branch may encroach upon the
powers of another. The second is that no branch may delegate to another branch
its constitutionally assigned power.” Id. (citation omitted). In Bush v.
Schiavo, 885 So. 2d 321 (Fla. 2004), cert. denied, 125 S. Ct. 1086 (2005), we
recently addressed this second prohibition and explained:

The Legislature is permitted to transfer subordinate functions “to permit administration of legislative policy by an agency with the expertise and
flexibility to deal with complex and fluid conditions.” Microtel, Inc. v.
Fla. Public Serv. Comm’n, 464 So. 2d 1189, 1191 (Fla. 1985). However,
under article II, section 3 of the constitution the Legislature “may not delegate the power to enact a law or the right to exercise unrestricted discretion in applying the law.” Sims v. State, 754 So. 2d 657, 668 (Fla. 2000). This prohibition, known as the nondelegation doctrine, requires that “fundamental and primary policy decisions . . . be made by members of the legislature who are elected to perform those tasks, and [that the] administration of legislative programs must be pursuant to some minimal standards and guidelines ascertainable by reference to the enactment establishing the program.” Askew v. Cross Key Waterways, 372 So. 2d 913, 925 (Fla. 1978); see also Avatar Dev. Corp. v. State; 723 So. 2d 199, 202 (Fla. 1998) (citing Askew with approval).

In other words, statutes granting power to the executive branch “must clearly announce adequate standards to guide . . . in the execution of the powers delegated. The statute must so clearly define the power delegated that the [executive] is precluded from acting through whim, showing favoritism, or exercising unbridled discretion.” Lewis v. Bank of Pasco County, 346 So. 2d 53, 55-56 (Fla. 1976). Id. at 332 (alterations in original).

The requirement that the Legislature delineate adequate standards enables courts to perform their constitutional duties. The failure to set forth adequate standards precludes a court from determining whether the executive branch is acting in accord with the Legislature’s intent. See Askew, 372 So. 2d at 918-19 (“When legislation is so lacking in guidelines that neither the agency nor the courts can determine whether the agency is carrying out the intent of the legislature in its conduct, then, in fact, the agency becomes the lawgiver rather than the administrator of the law.”).


In Martin, the issue was that the statute clearly stated that the decision was completely discretionary with the Secretary. In Schiavo, the issue was that the statute did not provide standards to guide the governor in when not to grant a stay, or when to lift one.

In the local government context, the seperation of powers does not constrain a Board in its legislative capacity from delegating itself or its agencies administrative powers. (there's a big section on this in my 1996 article in Stetson Law Review). However, nothing in a local government's home rule powers gives local government bodies sitting in their legislative role the delegated authority to "redelegate" their legislative authority to administrative actors. So, ultimately, the same seperation of powers analysis that applies at the state level should apply at the local level; the difference is that at the state level the prohibition against delegation stems from article II, section 3 of the Florida Constitution, and at the local level, it violates the basic premise that local government have no powers that are not granted to them by the Constitution or laws of the state.

This is interesting, because the standards for "improper delegation of legislative authority to the executive" seem to me to be somewhat more stringent than the traditional tests for an improperly vague ordinance or statute that violates substantive due process. More on that another time.

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