Ignoring the recommendation of a special master, the Florida Senate sided with Gov. Ron DeSantis and removed former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel from office
Florida lore has it that county sheriffs are kings.
Especially in rural regions, the elected law enforcement officials have wielded nearly unfettered power.
State law deigns sheriffs "the conservators of the peace in their counties" and endows them with the authority to "suppress tumults, riots, and unlawful assemblies in their counties with force and strong hand when necessary." They also have the power to "apprehend, without warrant, any person disturbing the peace."
But as mighty as county sheriffs might be, the governor and the state Senate ultimately command even greater clout.
This week, the Republican-dominated Senate flexed its muscle, overruling a special master's recommendation and supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis' move to strip former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel of his job.
Senators have the authority to remove or reinstate elected officials and could have allowed the embattled sheriff, who hasn't been charged with any crime, to keep his job.
They've done it before.
More than three decades ago, the Senate reinstated a Franklin County sheriff who was suspended by then-Gov. Reubin Askew.
According to Senate records, the Panhandle sheriff, Jack Taylor, Jr., was accused of using prisoners who were locked up at the county jail for his personal purposes. Taylor allowed prisoners to go on unsupervised visits to their homes, fish with their friends on St. George Island and gad about to other places. Taylor also gave permission for prisoners to use county vehicles to drive around town, which resulted on one occasion in an inmate being arrested for drunken driving. Taylor also bought a gun from an inmate in his own hoosegow, so the prisoner could pay bond and get out of jail.
But siding with Special Master Stephen Kahn in 1978, the Senate decided that, while Taylor may have violated the law, his conduct was not "sufficiently wrongful to warrant his removal from office to which he had been elected by a majority of the electorate."
Israel, a Democrat who was first elected by Broward County voters in 2012 and re-elected in 2016 with overwhelming support, hopes to get his old job back at the ballot box next year. In a county dominated by Democrats, Israel's removal by the Republican governor and the GOP-controlled Senate will surely play a starring role in the race.
But the legal saga surrounding Israel likely isn't over. His lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, indicated the former sheriff will challenge the Senate's decision, which Israel decried on behalf of the Broward electorate.
"Your vote has been stolen and the results of our 2016 election have been overturned. From 450 miles away, the governor substituted his judgment for yours and installed his own sheriff in Broward County," Israel said in a prepared statement.
ONE FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS
Heeding the pleas of parents whose children were slaughtered in the state's worst school shooting, the Senate delivered a major victory Wednesday to DeSantis by removing Israel from office.
DeSantis, as a candidate for governor last year, pledged to oust Israel for failures associated with the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 students and three staff members dead and another 17 people injured.
In one of his first acts after taking office in January, the governor suspended Israel, accusing the sheriff of "incompetence" and neglect of duty for the sheriff's office's handling of the Parkland school massacre and a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2017 that killed five people.
DeSantis thanked the Senate for backing his decision to oust Israel.
"I hope the outcome provides some measure of relief to the Parkland families that have been doggedly pursuing accountability," DeSantis tweeted following Wednesday's 25-15 vote.
The full Senate vote – in which three Democrats joined the Republican majority – came two days after the Senate Rules Committee ignored Special Master Dudley Goodlette's recommendation that Israel should be reinstated. The committee vote came after emotional entreaties from family members of the Parkland victims.
On Wednesday afternoon, a cadre of the Parkland family members watched from the public gallery during more than two hours of impassioned Senate debate that highlighted a conundrum facing many lawmakers.
Sen. Tom Lee, a former Senate president and the lone Republican to oppose Israel's removal, sparked the discussion with a warning about the precedent-setting nature of removing an elected official who has not been charged with any crimes.
"We're not voting on anything that's in your mind or anything that's in your conscience. We're voting on what's in the (governor's) executive order," Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said during floor debate. "Forevermore, what we do here today, in support or opposition to this executive order, is now a part of legislative lore. It is precedent."
But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, argued Israel "got his day in court" when he made his case before the Senate special master. Bradley emphasized the state Constitution gives the Senate the power to decide his fate.
"I am quite comfortable that if we are talking about precedent, if a future Senate wants to see how to do one of these things, this would be a very, very good model to use going forward. I think that it has been a model that should actually be admired and repeated," Bradley said.
– This story appeared in the Oct. 30, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.