Citizen AdvocacyGeneral InformationGovernment Advocacy/Public Records

Crusading St. Petersburg Lawyer Sues Florida Supreme Court Over Constitutional Violations

Matthew D. Weidner is recognized nationally for the battles he’s waged on behalf of consumers fighting banks and large corporations.  Now he’s taken on an even more daunting task, He’s suing Florida’s Supreme Court over what he alleges is the court’s efforts to maintain an entire court system that violates Florida’s Constitution.

The Petition filed in the case Bengivengo v. Federal National Mortgage Association begins with a dramatic accusation targeted directly at the high court itself:

There can be no dispute with the proposition that it is the highest duty and obligation of the Florida Supreme Court to protect the Constitutional rights of the citizens of this State. Clearly this obligation and duty exists no matter who the party is that is violating the Constitutional rights of citizens.  But when it is the judicial system itself that is systematically violating the rights of citizens, it becomes all the more imperative that this Court takes seriously its duty both of self examination and its obligation to protect and enforce the Constitutional rights of citizens.

The principal argument advanced in the lawsuit, called a Petition for Writ of Prohibition, is that while Florida’s Constitution provides very clear and explicit restrictions and limitations on who may serve as judges in courtrooms all across the state, Florida’s high court has created an ever expanding “shadow” court system which is staffed by retired or senior judges who are entirely exempt from the Constitional restrictions faced by every single other judge in the entire state. In support of this important point the Petition asserts:

It should seem quite extraordinary to this court the fact that every single Supreme Court Justice and every single Appellate, Circuit and County court judge sitting on benches across the entire state appears before the public on ballots every six years but senior judges, who now serve in perpetual terms, are never presented to the general public.  Surely this court must recognize that the Florida Constitution does not contemplate, and in fact it expressly forbids, the permanent maintenance of a corps of “super” senior judges, who sit entirely immune from the Constitutional restrictions that every other judge in this state complies with.

According to Weidner, “We live in a time when the citizens of the State of Florida are increasingly distrustful of their government…and with good reason. Over and over again we see the executive and legislative branches spinning wildly out of control and engaging in gross and systematic abuses of the Constitutional rights of citizens.  Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet have made it standard operating procedure to violate Florida’s Constitutional requirements of open records while the Florida Legislature recently engaged in a systematic campaign to violate the voting rights of millions of Floridians. Now more than ever, the citizens of this state must rely on the judicial system to provide some semblance of protection against a government gone wild.”

The lawsuit lays out a very clear and frankly reasonable challenge. It merely asks the high court to define the word, “temporary” as used in Article V of Florida’s Constitution.  Article V of Florida’s Constitution provides explicit limits on the terms of every judge in the state, and by the express terms of the Florida Constitution, the only time these restrictions do not apply are when a judge serves in a “temporary” capacity.  It is the dramatic expansion of the use of senior judges who now serve in perpetual terms in courtrooms all across the state that Weidner’s asserts violates the Constitution.  It’s been more than a decade since Florida’s Supreme Court addressed the issue of the expanded use of Senior Judges and in that case, Justice Fred Lewis who still serves on the Supreme Court, warned that the court system must respect Article V limitations and not merely dance around knowing violations with a “judicial wink” as he termed it in the case, Physicians Healthcare Plans v. Pfeifler.

“I’m very hopeful that Justice Lewis will carefully consider his prescient warning from more than a decade ago and take up this very important question.” says Weidner. “This case is about so much more than merely the use of Senior Judges alone. Most lawyers don’t know…and hardly any Floridians know…that our state’s entire judicial system is funded by less than 1% of the entire state budget…and that number is decreasing.  Now more than ever, the citizens of this state need a court system that is properly funded and our judges and court staff need to be supported with the kind of resources necessary to allow them to fulfill the essential function of providing timely justice to the citizens of this state.  The perpetual use of senior judges conceals the much larger problems facing the whole of the judicial branch in this state, in the same way a band aid would conceal a larger cancer lurking just beneath the surface.”

See Press on this issue:

Writ Asks Florida’s Top Court to Block Assignment of Senior Judges “For Unlimited Periods of Time”

AMERICAN BAR JOURNAL

Use of Retired Florida Judges Sparks Lawsuit

TAMPA BAY TRIBUNE

Lawyers Challenge Use of “senior” judges

ORLANDO SENTINEL

 

The full petition is here:

Petition for Prohibition (Bengivengo)

Apprendix Final – Bengivengo

matt-weidner-6.png

Leave a Reply