Petition for Writ of Mandamus

There’s been considerable teeth gnashing about a 2013 Florida law allowing politicians to hold their assets in blind trusts, and withhold from public disclosure specification of the assets held in those trusts. But the debate is only theoretical at this point, according to Florida’s First District Court of Appeal. For that reason, in its opinion issued today in Apthorp v. Detzner, the 1st DCA punted on the merits of a challenge to the constitutionality of the blind trust provisions.

Apthorp was an aide to former Governor Rubin Askew, who pushed the passage of the Sunshine Amendment, the first successful ballot initiative in Florida, which is now Article II, section 8 of the Florida Constitution. Among other things, the Sunshine Amendment requires full disclosure by public office-holders of their financial interests, to avoid conflicts of interest in their decision-making. With financial holdings public, if a politician voted in a way that benefitted his/her financial interests, that fact would be known to the public and subject to public scrutiny.  

In 2013, the Florida legislature passed section 112.31425, Florida Statutes, which allows public officials to hold their assets in “qualified blind trusts,” for ostensibly the same purpose — to avoid conflicts of interest. A statewide grand jury convened in 2010 had recommended the use of blind trusts for that purpose.

A public office-holder uses a blind trust by placing his/her money with a manager who has full power to buy and sell assets. In theory, then, the public office-holder would not know whether a decision affects his/her financial interests because he/she doesn’t know the identity of the companies in which the assets of the trust are currently invested.

According to the legislature, “if a public officer creates a trust and does not control the interests held by the trust, his or her official actions will not be influenced or appear to be influenced by private considerations.” Correspondingly, the legislature permitted public office-holders to publicly disclose only the total value of the assets held in a blind trust, and not the individual investments of the blind trust.

Apthorp apparently did not see the blind trust provisions as a positive development. He saw the blind trust reporting provisions as a way for public office-holders to essentially hold on to the assets and avoid public disclosure. Soon after the new provisions were enacted, Apthorp sought to block candidates from taking advantage of them by filing a Petition for Writ of Mandamus to the Supreme Court of Florida.

When the Supreme Court ruled that the case should be heard in circuit court, Apthorp sought a declaratory judgment from the circuit court that the blind trust provisions violated the Sunshine Amendment. The trial court ruled that they do not.

Apthorp challenged that ruling on appeal. But the 1st DCA didn’t reach the constitutional issue. Instead, the 1st DCA vacated the trial court’s declaratory judgment after finding that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the case at all because there was no justiciable controversy.

A bedrock principle of the court system is that courts are constitutionally empowered only to decide actual disputes between the parties. With few exceptions, courts don’t have jurisdiction to issue “advisory opinions,” i.e., to say how they would rule if a certain set of circumstances were presented to them. The plaintiff must assert an actual controversy: that the defendant violated (or is currently violating) the law, that the plaintiff has been injured by the alleged violation, and must seek redress for the alleged injury.

Suits for declaratory judgment are somewhat of an anomoly because they seek a declaration about a future action — before anyone has been harmed — rather than relief for an injury caused by a past or present harm. For example, in a common type of suit for declaratory judgment, an insurer seeks a declaration that its contract doesn’t require it to cover certain damages. That contrasts with the more traditional paradigm suit, in which, for example, an insured might sue the insurer after it had refused to cover damages, claiming the insurer had breached the contract in doing so.

But there are limits to courts’ ability to hear declaratory judgment suits as well, the 1st DCA explained. Under the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Martinez v. Scanlan, 582 So. 2d 1167 (Fla. 1991), there must still be an actual controversy, “a bona fide, actual, present practical need for the declaration…” (Applying this principle to the insurer’s declaratory judgment suit, there’s a need for a declaration because there’s a present dispute between the insurer and insured over whether the insurer is required to pay for the damages. But if, for example, an insurer sought a declaration that a certain provision in its contract doesn’t require it to ever cover a certain type of damages, without reference to specific damages incurred by a specific insured, under Martinez, there would appear to be no actual present need for a declaratory judgment.)     

The 1st DCA held that there was no actual present need for a declaration regarding the constitutionality of the blind trust provisions because no candidate or public office-holder had yet sought to take advantage of those provisions. “Not only has no public officer ever used the type of ‘qualified blind trust’ authorized by the statute Apthorp is challenging, but his brief concedes that he knows of no constitutional officer or candidate who incorporated a blind trust in the most recent financial statements.” Until that happened, there would be no justiciable question for the court to decide, only a theoretical issue that might arise in the future.

Because it found the courts lacked jurisdiction to decide the issue, the 1st DCA vacated the trial court’s judgment as improperly entered, leaving the constitutional question open for challenge in a later case. In a special concurrence, Judge Thomas emphasized that the opinion should not be read to take a position on the constitutional issue, and hinted that he saw potential constitutional problems. But that issue will need to await a case in which the concerns are not merely theoretical.