Wednesday, April 12, 2017
State Attorney Argues Separation of Powers in Lawsuit Against Governor Over Death Penalty
Aramis Ayala, the State Attorney for Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit, filed suit yesterday against Governor Rick Scott over Scott's effort to remove Ayala from 23 pending homicide cases. Scott issued a series of executive orders purporting to transfer the cases to a neighboring state attorney after Ayala announced that she would not seek the death penalty in some of those cases.
Ayala's lawsuit raises state constitutional separation-of-powers issues, pitting the independently-elected State Attorney's authority to prosecute cases within her jurisdiction against the Governor's authority to execute the law.
In particular, Ayala argues in her state supreme court writ of quo warranto that Scott's executive orders violate the state attorney's power to prosecute all cases in that circuit. Article V, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution provides that the state attorney for each judicial circuit "shall be the prosecuting officer in all trial courts in that circuit." The constitution contains two exceptions, but neither applies. Ayala argues that Scott's executive orders violate the provision vesting her office alone with prosecutorial authority within her district.
Ayala also claims that the governor's constitutional powers to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" and "supreme executive power" don't authorize his actions, because the Florida Constitution specifically allotted her powers in Article V, Section 17.
Finally, Ayala contends that Scott's moves violate functional separation of powers. Drawing on Florida's strict separation clause ("No person belonging to one branch of government shall exercise any powers appertaining to either of the other branches unless expressly provided herein."), Ayala says that Scott's executive orders infringe on her role as a quasi-judicial officer and on the state judiciary itself:
Here, Scott has purported to remove Ayala entirely from the cases that his orders apply to. So under the Governor's orders, not only would Ayala not decide whether to seek the death penalty here, she also would not participate in other crucial aspects of the case, including ensuring compliance with Brady v. Maryland, safeguarding a fair trial, and considering the interests of the victims and the public. Those latter functions are precisely those that an independent judiciary protects and that the executive may not meddle in.
Ayala simultaneously filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that Scott's moves violate equal protect and due process. But she moved to stay federal proceedings pending the outcome of her state claims.