Courts Key to Strength of Florida's Sunshine Law

By Kaney, Jon | The Masthead, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Courts Key to Strength of Florida's Sunshine Law


Kaney, Jon, The Masthead


Floridians believe that our Government-in-the-Sunshine Law is the strongest open meetings law in the world. The law simply requires that "[a]ll meetings of any board or commission of any (state or local governmental body) at which official acts are to be taken are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, and no ... formal action shall be considered binding except as taken or made at such meeting. The board or commission must provide reasonable notice of all such meetings."

Today, in light of its interpretation and application by Florida courts, the Sunshine Law is a remarkable act without a loophole. The courts have refused all invitations to engraft exceptions or qualifications and have given the law the broadest possible interpretation.

A "meeting" is any communication between any two or more members of a collegial body in which the members discuss any matter that foreseeably may come before the meeting. "Official acts" include any discussion of such foreseeable business. A "board or commission" includes any informal advisory body that plays a role in the decision-making process.

A meeting is not "open to the public" unless it is held in a venue that is genuinely open and accessible to the public and in or close by the jurisdiction of the board. A vote by secret ballot is not "open to the public," and a discussion that refers to undisclosed codes or pseudonyms is not open to the public.

Any action taken by a board that is tainted by nonpublic deliberations at any stage of the decision-making process is void, and the board may not proceed unless it "cures" the action by rehashing the entire deliberation in an independent final action in the Sunshine.

There is a reason in history why Florida courts have so energetically embraced the Sunshine Law. It is a product of revolutionary reform, adopted in 1967 by a newly reapportioned Legislature elected under a reapportionment plan imposed by order of the federal court. As South Florida grew rapidly in the postwar years, the Legislature had become increasingly less representative of the population, and reapportionment was an issue that dominated Florida politics from 1946 until the matter was finally resolved by court order.

During this era, the legislature was dominated by a secretive cabal of rural state senators known as the "Pork Chop Gang." They operated in secret, controlled the Senate, and above all else protected their seats from reapportionment.

In 1954, LeRoy Collins ran for governor on a platform of reform. He pledged to bring about fair apportionment and advocated "government in the Sunshine and not in the shade." In his first message to the Legislature in 1955, he called for this reform, saying, "The people of Florida possess the sovereignty of statehood. [They] have yielded to us no right to decide what is good for them to know, or what is bad for them to know."

Collins' bill passed the House but died in committee in the Senate, a pattern that was repeated in each session thereafter until 1967.

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