By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In the first major demonstration of an ideological shift on the revamped Florida Supreme Court, justices Tuesday refused to consider an appeal in a Miami Beach minimum-wage lawsuit that a former liberal-leaning majority of the court had scheduled to hear next month.
The move by the now-conservative majority was a victory for business groups who have fought an ordinance that Miami Beach passed in 2016 to raise the minimum wage locally. The Supreme Court effectively let stand lower-court decisions that blocked the ordinance.
Justices on Tuesday also dismissed three other cases that the old majority had decided to hear. The decisions were a clear signal that three new justices — appointed since Republican Gov. DeSantis took office Jan. 8 — and three conservatives already on the bench intend to forge a sharply different path from their predecessors.
DeSantis appointed former appellate judges Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck and former U.S. Department of Education General Counsel Carlos Muniz following the retirements in January of longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. The three former justices, who left the court because of a mandatory retirement age, had frequently joined Justice Jorge Labarga to form a majority that thwarted the Republican-led Legislature and former Gov. Rick Scott.
In his inaugural speech, DeSantis blasted the court for expanding its powers “beyond constitutional bounds” and substituting “legislative will for dispassionate legal judgment.”
DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, likely reshaped the court for decades to come through his appointments of Lagoa, Luck and Muñiz, who each pledged solidarity with the governor’s judicial philosophy and whose first display of a conservative-leaning court came Tuesday.
In a 4-3 decision last year, justices agreed to consider an appeal by Miami Beach in the minimum-wage case and set arguments for March 6. Pariente, Lewis, Quince and Labarga were in the majority in deciding to hear the case.
But in a 5-2 order issued Tuesday, the court reversed its stance and dismissed the case. The majority was made up of Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson, Logoa and Muniz, while Labarga and Luck dissented.
“Upon further consideration, we exercise our discretion and discharge jurisdiction,” the order read.
As is typical when the court chooses to take up or reject a case, justices on Tuesday gave no explanation of their decision. Nevertheless, the new majority sided with opponents of the Miami Beach minimum wage such as the Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.
The dismissal keeps intact lower court rulings that said a state law bars Miami Beach from gradually increasing its minimum wage to $13.31 an hour in 2021. The case drew attention from local governments, which sided with Miami Beach.
The legal battle stemmed, in part, from a 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment that gave Florida a higher minimum wage than the federal rate. Former Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office and the business groups argued that another state law — known as a preemption law — effectively requires Florida’s minimum wage to be the same throughout the state and blocks local governments from passing higher rates.
Miami Beach approved an ordinance in 2016 that called for the minimum wage to be set at $10.31 an hour last year and incrementally increase to $13.31. The statewide minimum wage is $8.46 an hour, while the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
Business groups, which successfully challenged the ordinance in Miami-Dade County circuit court and the 3rd District Court of Appeal, hailed the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the case.
“Today’s Florida Supreme Court action serves as a proof point to other local governments that a patchwork of mandated wage regulations are against the law,” Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson said in a prepared statement.
But Philip Levine, a former Miami Beach mayor who was a major force behind the city’s minimum-wage effort and who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, said the Supreme Court decision is a disservice to Floridians and local governments.
“Number one, most importantly, elections have consequences,” Levine, a Democrat, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The consequence of the November Democratic loss was the Republican governor that has stocked the Supreme Court with judges that, not that they decided against allowing a local community to set their own minimum wage, but they decided not even to listen to the argument of the case. That’s unfortunate, when it affects millions of people and it affects local governments across the state.”
Laura Huizar, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, called the court’s reversal “a shameful, indefensible move” worthy of condemnation.
“With this decision, the Florida Supreme Court passed up an important opportunity to protect local democracy and the basic right of cities’ and counties’ to build upon state laws in order to meet local needs, a right that the Florida Legislature and corporate interests have eroded in recent years,” she said in a statement.
Tuesday’s actions could signal how the new majority will come down on future business-related disputes and could spark state lawmakers, whose annual session begins in March, to consider business-backed legislation to address issues that the old court had foiled.
For example, the appointment of the new justices could bolster the business community’s interest in tackling attorney fees in the workers’ compensation insurance system.
In addition to the minimum-wage dispute, the court Tuesday also dismissed three other cases that the former majority — Labarga, Lewis, Pariente and Quince — had agreed to hear.
One case involved a deceased smoker’s daughter, who was originally awarded more than $3 million by a jury. In a 4-1 July order in which Polston dissented, the court agreed to consider the case. But siding with tobacco companies on Tuesday, the court unanimously dismissed the petition for review “as improvidently granted.” Lagoa was recused from the case.
Another case centered on a dispute between a woman who purchased a car from a Brandon car dealership. Polston again was the lone “no” vote in last year’s decision to hear the case. Labarga and Luck dissented in the court’s 5-2 decision Tuesday to dismiss the case.
Also on Tuesday, the court reversed a previous decision to hear an appeal filed by an Okaloosa County man convicted of molesting a child under age 12. Canady had dissented in the 4-1 December decision to take up the case. Polston and Labarga dissented in Tuesday’s order dismissing the review “as improvidently granted.”