The U.S. Supreme Court issued two separate rulings Tuesday that could have both election and property rights implications in the Florida Keys.
The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government does not have to sign off on election law changes in Monroe County and four other Florida counties. The five counties had been included in the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and all election rule changes in those counties had to be cleared by the Department of Justice. The concern in 1965 was protecting the voting rights of minorities.
The Supreme Court justices argued the racial climate has changed since the 1960s and 1970s and the requirements should not longer be in place.
Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin and Florida League of Women of Voters President Deirdre Macnab are voicing concerns about a lack of federal oversight in Monroe, Hardee, Hendry, Collier and Hillsborough counties.
The court did leave open the possibility that Congress could keep the oversight in place, but Macnab doubted Congress would take up the issue.
"I am more than worried about this," Macnab said. "This puts Florida in the twilight zone. Now we have no oversight. The state Legislature has a clear history of partisan manipulation of election laws ... . This leaves us without a federal shield."
Monroe County was included in the Voting Rights Act because the Supervisor of Elections Office formerly did not print ballots in Spanish, despite a large Spanish-speaking population, Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin said.
Anytime Monroe County officials wanted to change voting days, districts or hold special elections, the Department of Justice had to sign off on the changes, Griffin said.
"I never had a problem with it," Griffin said. "It was another layer of protection. It made people think about what they were doing before they did it. It never hurt me. The laws change and we change with them."
Court rules on 'takings'
The Supreme Court also ruled that state and local governments' demand for money in exchange for issuing a building permit could constitute an illegal "taking" of property, and property owners have the right to sue over it.
The ruling stems from the case Koontz vs. St. John's Water Management District.
Coy Koontz Sr. sued the water district after battling over permits for a 15-acre parcel he bought near Orlando in 1972, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In 1994, Koontz requested permits to build on 4 acres of the land and offered to set aside the rest of the property as open space, the Los Angeles Times reported. The district wanted him either to reduce the size of his development or pay for improvements to district-owned land several miles away.
Koontz refused, and the permit was denied, the newspaper reported.
Monroe County Attorney Bob Shillinger and his staff are "studying nuances of the decision but, upon initial review, do not believe the Koontz decision will have much impact on the county," Shillinger said Wednesday.
However, private attorney Andy Tobin, who specializes in land-use cases, contended that it could have local implications.
Tobin filed a lawsuit on behalf of Keys property owner Enos Mitchell six months ago challenging the county's $5,000 fee to receive what is known as a beneficial-use permit. The fee changed roughly seven years ago from $750 to $5,000.
The permit starts the process for the county to either grant a building permit or buy the property if its owner is not allowed to build on it.
Tobin contends the fee was increased to keep people from requesting the permit.
"They are discouraging people from exercising their right to just compensation," Tobin said. "They take your land and put up a roadblock. Our lawsuit will definitely be helped by this ruling."