Punk Activist Justin Wales Wants to Give You the Right to Sue the City of Miami

Justin Wales (standing at center in collared shirt) is "changing the way Miami does politics."EXPAND
Justin Wales (standing at center in collared shirt) is "changing the way Miami does politics."
Courtesy of Justin Wales

"Just look at our skyline and imagine what's going to be there in five or ten years. If the public knew the extent to which some of those buildings were pushed through, I think it would reflect poorly on the city and the City Attorney's office." This is Justin Wales, a 30-year-old First Amendment attorney who describes himself on Twitter as a "lawyer/nerd/punk/activist" who is "changing the way Miami does politics."

Wales — best known as founder of the satirical website the Plantain — recently stood in front of the City of Miami Commission and made a simple proposition: Give the people the right to sue the city and be heard in court when elected officials violate the city charter. If you live in Mimai, you can vote on this proposal November 8. It will be ballot question number 4.

The idea shouldn't have been controversial. Citizens have always had an implied right to sue their government when politicians break the law. But because Miami's charter doesn't specifically grant that right, the city attorney has been using the omission as a technicality to get lawsuits tossed out and shield the city from prosecution.

The biggest danger of that, Wales says, is in the area of real-estate development. If citizens can't sue, there's no way for them to challenge the improper handout of public money, land, and privileges to developers, or other forms of corruption. "I think that explains why the city is so aggressive against citizens who sue, at their own expense, over charter violations."

Wales looks unassuming. He wears dark-rimmed, retro-style eyeglasses and has long-on-top brown hair, light stubble, and thick eyebrows that seesaw as he speaks. At his day job with the law firm Carlton Fields, he wears a suit. Despite the scholarly appearance, Wales is an outspoken idealist who plays the necessary role of gadfly in a city notorious for corruption and graft.

In July 2015, he cofounded Engage Miami, a nonprofit group aimed at increasing voter turnout and civic participation among millennials. He serves as policy adviser to a group of hackers aiming to implement an open data policy for local government. He has petitioned to increase funding for public parks, written legal briefs supporting gay marriage, lobbied for action on sea-level rise, and recently launched the Plantain, a popular local version of the satirical news site the Onion, which he often uses as a vehicle for his political convictions.

His latest cause célèbre — letting people have their day in court when they allege a Miami politician has violated the law — centers on a mundane legal concept known as "standing." Simply put, in order to sue someone, you need to show you are personally harmed by their actions. If you can't demonstrate standing, the judge can toss your case before it goes to trial.

Wales argues that citizens should automatically have standing to bring a lawsuit when politicians transgress because everyone is harmed by the breach of trust. Therefore, anyone should be able to sue. For decades, in fact, that view was upheld by local judges. But because of a controversial district court ruling last year, that's no longer the case. So Wales wants to fix it.

He asked the city's five commissioners to place an item on the November 8 presidential ballot to let Miamians vote on amending the charter to clearly give residents standing to challenge their government in court. After all, he asks, "What's the point of a charter if there's no remedy for a violation?"

The city attorney called it "a very bad idea." Two commissioners warned it will invite a flood of lawsuits. But convinced by Wales' forceful plea to empower the people, the lawmakers voted 3-2 in favor of the proposal.

Fifteen years before that victory, Wales and his single mother left South Florida to escape a life of poverty. They landed in Los Angeles, where Wales attended high school. He later earned a BA in history from the University of California at San Diego and then returned to Florida in 2009 to study law at the University of Miami before entering the legal field.

But those credentials, he insists, are irrelevant to his activism. "Miami is an amazing place, and if you want to do something to make it better, the access and opportunities are here, unlike any city in the country. You don't need a law degree."

Wales says one of first feats of activism began where all great movements begin: in a bar. He and three friends were drinking at a local watering hole one night last year and talking about "all the giant development proposals in District 2 that were going to cost taxpayers millions of dollars that were just ugly and that were being pushed through and no one was paying attention." They wondered if they could change things without spending any money.

Through his Engage organization, Wales and his crew registered a few thousand young voters and spread the word about the upcoming election for the District 2 commission seat. Ken Russell, the youngish underdog candidate who promised green space, smart development, and a change of ethics in Miami City Hall, ended up surging to victory with 75 percent more votes than the runnerup.

A couple of months after taking office, Russell appointed Wales to a committee to review the city charter and find ways to improve it. That's how Wales ended up in front of the commission last month arguing for citizens' standing.

"Honestly, just the fact that someone like me can get involved and have an effect on the City of Miami is amazing," Wales muses. "I don't come from a connected family or have any internal connections to the city or big business. And now we're pushing through ballots and registering 10,000 young voters in this new election cycle... It gives you a sense of a community. And it's just one aspect of the plan I have — political and legal and cultural and humorous. And it all blends together into a better Miami."

He partly credits the low level of local political engagement for his success: "There are just not a lot of eyes on what's going on in government, so if you try to mobilize a grassroots effort, you don't need a lot of support to push something through. It's great, but frankly, there's something wrong with a situation where a relatively small number of people can start an organization and have such a profound influence so quickly."

That being said, he hopes a majority of residents November 8 will vote yes on ballot question 4, for which he fought hard. Among other things, it amends the charter to "provide residents the right to sue and be heard in court to enforce compliance with Charter provisions."

"If it passes — and I think it will — at least there will be some repercussions for the shenanigans that go on in the city," he says.

"But still not enough."

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