Photo by Joe Gratz via Flickr
A federal judge who’s been highly critical of how the state has handled elections struggled Monday to find a fix to a lawsuit filed by ousted Broward County elections chief Brenda Snipes, who was removed from her job by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott after she submitted her resignation.
Following a series of election mishaps and demands for her resignation, Snipes —- a Democrat appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and subsequently re-elected four times —- announced Nov. 18 that she would step down from her post, effective Jan. 4.
But on Nov. 30, Scott issued an executive order suspending Snipes and replacing her with his ally, Pete Antonacci, whose past roles with the governor’s administration have included serving as Scott’s general counsel.
The day after the executive order, Snipes held a news conference and rescinded her resignation. Seeking to regain her job, Snipes later filed a federal lawsuit against Scott and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
Snipes filed the case four days after Galvano said the Senate, which has the constitutional authority to remove from office or reinstate suspended elected officials, would not take up the matter. The lawsuit alleges that Snipes has “suffered a significant deprivation” of her rights as a result of her suspension and the Senate’s refusal to consider her case. Snipes is asking to be reinstated, or to have the Senate hold a hearing or appoint a special master to consider her future.
“She has been publicly humiliated by being closed out of her job and further not being paid during the suspension,” the lawsuit said. “At this point, Governor Scott’s allegations have gone unchallenged as he sits high on a ‘throne’ utilizing state resources to continually humiliate Snipes. Due process clearly applies.”
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who is given to Southern colloquialisms and who frequently gives attorneys a tongue-lashing from the bench and in his orders, peppered lawyers representing all sides —- the Senate, the governor and Snipes —- with questions throughout a two-hour hearing Monday. He did not immediately issue a ruling.
Walker appeared to take umbrage at the state’s position that there was little legal recourse for Snipes after Scott ousted her.
“I don’t understand how the governor could say anything he wanted about a public official, remove them, and, because it’s done at the end of their tenure … it doesn’t matter how unfair it is,” Walker said. “You’re just out of luck. Hard to square that with due process.”
Daniel Nordby, Scott’s general counsel, told Walker that Snipes could publicize a response to the accusations about her competence that Scott made in the executive order, which stripped her of a post she had already quit.
But, Nordby maintained, her “resignation introduces an insurmountable obstacle here” in terms of a possible court-ordered cure.
Pushing back, Walker said officials should have a chance to publicly respond, “so that you don’t just get to scum me.”
“So, my forum is the Tampa Times. You get to say you’re the worst human being in the history of time and you’re removed, and your remedy is to go to the newspaper and say, here’s my written response?” the judge asked.
Nordby said Snipes could also write letters to Scott or to incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will be sworn in Tuesday.
Scott narrowly defeated Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in the Nov. 6 election, which required machine and hand recounts because of the slim margin. Amid the recounts, Scott and his supporters blasted Snipes over her handling of ballots from Broward, a Democratic stronghold.
Scott’s executive order outlined a series of alleged wrongdoings by Snipes. According to the order, she “demonstrated repeatedly that she was unable to accurately respond to basic requests from candidates, news media, and the general public regarding the number of ballots that had been cast, the number of ballots that had been counted, and the number of ballots remaining to be canvassed.”
A circuit judge ruled that Snipes had failed to provide public records requested by Scott’s campaign and others, Scott noted in the order.
Snipes also improperly permitted staff to open provisional and mail-in ballots that had not been examined by the county canvassing board and failed to keep ballots that had been accepted and rejected by the board “appropriately segregated,” Scott’s executive order said.
While the Broward canvassing board completed a machine recount before a state-ordered deadline, Snipes failed to submit the results to the state Division of Elections before the deadline passed, Scott’s order said.
Snipes also said more than 2,000 ballots had been “lost, misplaced, or misfiled” between Nov. 6 and Nov. 15, but that the missing ballots were “somewhere ‘in the building’” but has not provided an explanation, the governor wrote.
But Snipes’ lawyers accused Scott of trying to embarrass and humiliate the long-serving elections official.
Scott’s executive order “throws some things in that had some kernel of truth but other things that are not true at all,” Burnadette Norris-Weeks told Walker.
At the end of the hearing, Walker hinted that Snipes, who is black, might have been targeted because of her race.
The federal judge asked Norris-Weeks whether any supervisors were suspended for accepting “faxed-in ballots.” At least one elections supervisor in North Florida accepted ballots by fax after early-voting sites were destroyed by Hurricane Michael.
“No, your honor,” Norris-Weeks said.
“Do you know the gender or race of any of the right-leaning supervisors of elections in the Panhandle?” Walker queried.
They were all white males, Snipes’ lawyer, who is also black, replied.
“So whose ox is getting gored, that’s what” is at play, Walker asked.
Norris-Weeks said the suspension was “intended to embarrass and humiliate Snipes,” who sat beside her lawyers.
The ousted official deserves due process, Snipes’ lawyer Michelle Austen Pamies said.
Due process “is an opportunity to be heard,” Pamies said.
“It can’t be that she provides her own opportunity and sends a letter,” she said.
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