This article from the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board is certainly worth a read!
The Big Shots own Florida now. If you stand up to them, they will destroy you.
That’s the impact of an appeals court’s wrongheaded ruling on Maggy Hurchalla’s $4.4 million punishment for opposing a billionaire developer’s rock mine in Martin County.
It’s also the intent of a new state law that makes you risk everything if you challenge a development decision. For if you lose, you will be stuck paying the legal fees of the developer and the government.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 7103 into law in May, ignoring the environmental community’s pleas to veto it. “Citizens won’t dare challenge development orders if they risk financial ruin,” warns the environmental champion 1000 Friends of Florida, which has filed suit against the law.
Are Floridians no longer entitled to defend their communities from reckless development? To protect the environment from exploitation? To oppose the high and the mighty on anyissue of public policy?
Dramatic as they may appear, these questions do not overstate the dangers emanating from nearly two decades of one-party rule in Tallahassee, where the courts have been politicized and the Legislature turned into a reliable ally of powerful special interests.
In June, the Fourth District Court of Appeal panel that upheld the judgment against Hurchalla brushed off her reasonable request to have the entire court rehear the case en banc, or pass it along to the Florida Supreme Court as a question of great public interest.
Maggy Hurchalla is an environmentalist, a former four-term Martin County commissioner and the sister of Janet Reno, the former U.S. attorney general who passed away in 2016. She also faces a $4.4 million judgment for attempting to block a developer’s plans for a rock mine near Lake Okeechobee. Her case sends a chilling message: Be very careful what you say about a developer’s plans, or you could be ruined financially. (Carlton Ward)She’s going to appeal to the Supreme Court regardless. But a certified question would have helped persuade the justices to take the case.
In stiff-arming her, the Fourth District panel — three judges appointed by Republican governors — also gave the back of its hand to the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, the First Amendment Foundation, the ACLU and 12 other organizations and individuals that filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Hurchalla and the public’s right to free speech on matters of public interest.
Hurchalla, a former four-term Martin County commissioner whose sister was U.S. Attorney Janet Reno, is appealing nationwide for more support from environmentalists, media organizations and anyone else who appreciates the public’s right to speak out on public affairs.
In truth, it’s everyone’s fight, and Hurchalla needs and deserves all the allies she can get.
If the judgment against her stands, it doesn’t mean she’ll have to pay it because she doesn’t have the money. At 78, she owned nothing in her own name but two kayaks and her sister’s 2004 Toyota Camry, which the plaintiff took and eventually gave back.
Hurchalla is fighting for a principle.
A jury had awarded George Lindemann Jr., a billionaire developer, the $4.4 million on the premise of Hurchalla’s “tortious interference” with his contract with the South Florida Water Management District and Martin County. Both agencies settled with him, expensively, and let the project proceed. But Hurchalla refused to issue the apology she was told would put an end to the suit.
Lindemann claimed some of her objections weren’t truthful and that she expressed some of them in private e-mails to public officials whom she knew.
Neither of those arguments should have made a dime’s worth of difference in a controversy over public policy, where most legal precedents rightly favor robust discussion.
It was a classic SLAPP suit. That’s an acronym for “strategic litigation against public participation.”
Most courts elsewhere have seen it for what it is and ruled against it.
The effect of letting that judgement stand will be to tell the public this: If you object to a government deal with someone rich enough to hire sharp lawyers, be very careful of what you say and how you say it. Get one thing wrong and they will make you pay dearly.
In other words, shut up.
Making matters worse, the same Fourth District panel ruled against Hurchalla and the public in a related case Wednesday, holding that a public agency can forever refuse to disclose anything pertaining to mediations that settle lawsuits. That keeps secret the reasons why the water district agreed to its costly settlement with Lindemann.
That ruling, too, must be appealed.
Meanwhile, 1000 Friends of Florida has filed suit in Circuit Court in Tallahassee to strike down the poisonous part of HB 7103 — a sneaky eleventh-hour amendment from Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg that passed without any debate on its diabolical effects.
It says that in a lawsuit over enforcing a community’s comprehensive plan, the losing party must pay the other side’s legal fees. Previously, the winner could be compensated only if the court ruled the complaint to be frivolous or in bad faith.
Loser pays works both ways, of course. But in practice, it’s the developers who can afford the risk and private citizens who can’t.
Citizen action is the only remaining check on runaway development and pliable local officials. 1000 Friends is right to call HB 7103 a “mortal blow to growth management.”
With the courts, the Legislature and the governor’s office all aligned with the Big Shots, Floridians can only hope that somewhere along the way, someone in black robes will remember the Constitution.
——Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Sergio Bustos, Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.