Court Upholds Constitutionally Mandated Protection of Florida’s Threatened and Endangered Sea Turtles, Manatees, and Other Marine Species.

Date: August 31, 1998
Contact: Dan Evans
Phone: (352) 373-6441

TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA – The Circuit Court for the Second Judicial Circuit for Leon County today, March 8, sided with environmental groups, and ruled that a 1998 Florida constitutional Amendment granted the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) constitutional authority to protect and manage threatened and endangered marine species. In August of 1999, The Caribbean Conservation Corporation (STSL), The Save The Manatee Club (SMC), and the Florida Wildlife Federation filed suit to have declared as unconstitutional specific language in the legislation establishing the new FWCC. The offending language had limited the Commission’s constitutional authority to protect threatened and endangered marine species. The conservation groups were represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

The Judges ruling states : The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has the constitutional authority to promulgate rules that impact upon endangered species and to otherwise act with reference to endangered species. In the exercise of this authority, the Commission acts, not as an administrative agency, but as a separately created constitutional commission. As such, it is not subject to the requirements of Chapter 120, Florida Statutes.”

SMC, STSL and other environmental organizations worked hard, but unsuccessfully, during the 1999 legislative session to have this unconstitutional language removed from the FWCC enabling legislation. In response to this legal victory, Pat Rose from SMC stated, It reinstates the will of the people to afford our most endangered animals the full and permanent protection of the law.” Gary Appelson, STSL’s Advocacy Coordinator stated, “ This is a victory for Floridians, manatees, and sea turtles. It sends a clear message that Floridians want the strongest protection possible for these endangered animals! It is unfortunate we had to go to court over this.”

The consequence of this ruling, is that the new commission can act to protect these marine species and promulgate rules without specific statutory authorization. Additionally, prior to this court ruling, parties affected by a proposed rule issued under statutory authority or by other actions addressing threatened and endangered marine species, could challenge the action through the state’s Administrative Procedures Act (APA) to immediately slow or stop the proposed rule. The APA is continually being manipulated by the legislature and could be used to make it increasingly difficult to protect these marine species. In contrast , because of today’s Court ruling, challenges to rules promulgated under the FWCC’s constitutional authority must be made through the circuit court system, which in practice affords the agency action a presumption of validity until proven otherwise.

In 1998 the voters of Florida overwhelmingly approved adding “Amendment 5″ to the Florida Constitution. That amendment mandated the merging of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the Marine Fisheries Commission into one new fish and wildlife conservation commission responsible for managing and protecting all of Florida’s wildlife.

Amendment 5 specifically stated that the new commission “shall exercise regulatory and executive powers of the state with respect to marine life.” However, despite this clear directive for the new FWCC to protect all marine species, the 1999 Florida legislature attempted to withhold certain authority from the FWCC. The legislation implementing the amendment and establishing the FWCC states “the commission has full constitutional rulemaking authority over marine life, and listed species as defined in s. 372.072(3), except for endangered and threatened marine species…” In siding with the Plaintiff’s, the Circuit Court struck this offending language and upheld the clear, plain, and ordinary meaning of the law as stated in the original amendment.

The Sea Turtle Survival League is a Program of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC). CCC is the worlds oldest non-profit sea turtle research and conservation organization, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Save the Manatee Club is a national membership based organization doing work exclusively for the protection of manatees and their habitats.

Representing the plaintiffs is the Tallahassee office of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund which handles cases across the country in matters affecting the health of the environment.