According to the U.S. Constitution, neither the President nor Congress have the power to remove a state governor or state official. At the state level, however, legislation often permits a state government to suspend or remove locally elected officials, for instance, in cases of corruption, incompetence or dereliction of duty.

While such state-level intervention at the leadership at the local level is relatively rare, it raises important questions. While state legislation permitting such interventions is motivated by the desire to protect local communities from errant local leaders, there is always a risk that such legislation can be used (or abused) by state officials for political purposes.  In such cases, state-level intervention could have a negative impact on the local self-government and the ability of local communities to democratically govern themselves.[1]

The question when a state government can (or should) remove a locally elected official is currently being debated in the state Florida, as a state Senate committee in Florida is recommending that the full Senate uphold the governor’s suspension of former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.

Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Israel shortly after taking office in January, fulfilling a promise made during the election campaign. DeSantis charged Israel with incompetence and dereliction of duty for actions before and after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Under Florida’s Constitution, the suspension must be reviewed by the state Senate.

On October 21, 2019, the Senate Rules committee heard nearly 10 hours of testimony from lawyers representing the governor and Israel, and also from family members of the shooting victims.

The hearing led off with the testimony of an attorney appointed by the Senate as a special master. Dudley Goodlette conducted a two-day hearing during the summer in which he heard from Israel and lawyers representing DeSantis. Goodlette surprised many when he recommended that Israel be reinstated as sheriff. At the hearing, the special master said while he found many failures by sheriffs’ deputies on the day of the shooting, the governor and his lawyers didn’t present evidence of institutional problems that could be attributed to Israel. He told senators, “They had a burden of moving forward and proving something and … I didn’t see any documentation of that.”

A lawyer for DeSantis, George Levesque, told senators they shouldn’t consider the hearing and the process of removing Israel, a Democrat and an elected official, as subject to the rules of a judicial proceeding. “It is a political decision,” Levesque said. The special master’s report, he reminded senators, isn’t binding.

Israel’s lawyer, Ben Kuehne, insisted that senators should only rely on evidence and facts submitted in the special master’s report. Kuehne said, “It cannot be a purely political decision as the governor has advised.” He raised a number of objections to documents and arguments submitted by the governor’s lawyers, even seeking, unsuccessfully to have Levesque removed from the case.

Read the entire article on National Public Radio (NPR).

[1] Arguably a more democratic approach to removing elected local officials would be a local-level recall process.