Judge Rejects Leaving Florida Elections Case

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge Tuesday refused to step down from a case challenging a 2023 Florida elections law, rejecting arguments by the state that suggested he had a “closed mind.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a seven-page order denying a request for recusal filed last week by attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd.

Groups such as the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Hispanic Federation are challenging the constitutionality of the 2023 law, which placed restrictions on what are known as “third party” voter-registration organizations. The plaintiffs say the organizations play an important role in signing up Black and Hispanic voters.

The request for recusal stemmed from a ruling Walker issued Feb. 8 in a separate court battle about a 2021 elections law. In that ruling, Walker entered a judgment in favor of the state after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier decision in which he found the 2021 law improperly discriminated against Black voters.

But Walker also wrote that the state “has, with surgical precision, repeatedly changed Florida’s election code to target whichever modality of voting Florida’s Black voters were using at the time. That was not this court’s opinion — it is a fact established by the record in these cases (involving the 2021 law). Even so, following the state of Florida’s appeal, this persistent and pernicious practice of targeting the modalities of voting most used by Florida’s Black voters has apparently received the stamp of approval in this (11th) Circuit.”

In arguing Walker should step down from the case about the 2023 law, Byrd’s attorneys cited issues such as the judge’s description of a “persistent and pernicious practice” related to Black voters.

“Plaintiffs in these consolidated proceedings (about the 2023 law) must prove that the state of Florida intentionally targeted third-party voter registration organizations because Black voters prefer to use them,” the motion said. “But this court (Walker) has seemingly concluded that the state of Florida engages in discrimination against Black voters. On the discriminatory-intent issue, therefore, this court appears to have a closed mind.”

But Walker on Tuesday rejected the arguments, disputing assertions that parts of his Feb. 8 ruling “call into question my impartiality in this case.”

Walker wrote that his “order on remand (from the 11th Circuit) in the 2021 election cases says nothing about the challenged provisions now before me or future amendments to Florida’s election regulations in general.”

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“My disagreement with the Eleventh Circuit’s reversal of my findings with respect to a different bill passed years earlier by a different legislature cannot raise substantial doubts about my ability to be impartial in this case,” Walker wrote. “Simply put, a fully informed, disinterested lay person would understand that I must apply a fact-intensive analysis that is dependent upon the context to each case — and here, I have said nothing to suggest that I will rely upon a past finding of intentional discrimination from an earlier case to invalidate state laws going forward.”

Walker also wrote that “my statements in an order on remand in the 2021 election cases were not directed at any party in those cases or the cases now before me — instead, my statements concerned a finding I had previously made in the 2021 election cases about a different legislature, a different legislative session, and different legislation. It would be a different case had I made gratuitous statements about defendant Byrd, but that is not what happened.”

The groups and other plaintiffs filed lawsuits after Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature last year approved the elections law. The plaintiffs argue, in part, that the law violates First Amendment rights.

In a July ruling, Walker issued a preliminary injunction against two changes in the law. Those changes would prevent non-U.S. citizens from collecting or handling voter-registration applications and make it a felony for voter-registration group workers to keep personal information of voters.

The state has appealed that ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it remains pending. While Walker issued a preliminary injunction, that is not a final ruling in the case, and a trial is scheduled in April.

Meanwhile, Walker this month rejected a League of Women Voters challenge to another part of the law that prevents people with certain felony convictions from “collecting or handling” voter-registration applications. Walker ruled the organization did not have legal standing to challenge that part of the law.

Walker, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, has issued a series of decisions in recent years that have been sharply critical of laws approved by DeSantis and lawmakers.


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