Impeachment Rare in Florida Most Officials Quit to Avoid Ordeal

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- Only one official has ever been removed from office through impeachment in Florida, although several have resigned rather than go through the ordeal.

While rarely used, it still stands as a last resort for the removal of errant officials.

The procedure outlined in the state constitution is similar to that used against President Clinton in Washington, but with an important difference.

The U.S. Constitution provides that a simple majority of House members may impeach the president or other federal officials and send the case to a trial in the Senate, where it takes two-thirds to convict.

But Florida's constitution provides for two-thirds both for the House to impeach and the Senate to convict.

The only Florida official removed from office through impeachment was Circuit Judge Samuel S. Smith of Lake City, who was convicted in 1978 of four articles involving a conspiracy to sell marijuana seized by sheriff's deputies in Suwannee County, according to The Florida Handbook.

There have been no serious impeachment attempts since then, although just prior to that there were several impeachment actions against Cabinet officers and Supreme Court justices, none of them resulting in formal removal.

Fred Karl, who was a Florida Supreme Court justice when he co-authored a law review article on impeachment, said it should be difficult to impeach someone, but it is important to have the process available.

"Its very existence encourages good government," Karl wrote in the article.

Like the federal constitution, the state constitution appears to leave considerable latitude to the legislative body to determine what constitutes an impeachable offense.

The U.S. Constitution's now-familiar language provides for impeachment in cases of "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

The state constitution provides that governors, lieutenant governors, Cabinet officers and judges are liable for impeachment "for misdemeanor in office."

The word "misdemeanor" in these usages refers to any serious misconduct rather than to a minor crime as it is generally used.

Jacksonville City Councilman Eric Smith, who teaches legislative process at Florida Coastal School of Law and served on an impeachment committee in the Legislature in the 1970s, said he thinks the framers of the constitutions were intentionally vague. …