Judicial Candidate Argues He Was Bar Member

TALLAHASSEE — A legal fight about whether a Northeast Florida judicial candidate is eligible to appear on this year’s ballot could come down to the definition of “member.”

Rose Marie Preddy, a judge in the 7th Judicial Circuit, filed a lawsuit last month challenging the candidacy of Scott DuPont, a former judge who was suspended from practicing law by the Florida Supreme Court in October 2019 and reinstated in June 2020.

The lawsuit contends that DuPont does not meet a constitutional qualification that says a lawyer is not “eligible for the office of circuit judge unless the person is, and has been for the preceding five years, a member of the bar of Florida.”

But in a court filing this week, DuPont’s attorney, former state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, argued that DuPont meets the eligibility requirement because he remained a member of The Florida Bar while suspended.

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“The Florida Constitution provides that ‘no person is eligible for the office of circuit judge unless the person is, and has been for the preceding five years, a member of the bar of Florida.’ Under a fair reading of this clause, member clearly means someone who belongs to the Florida Bar, whether they can practice at the time or not,” Sabatini wrote Tuesday.

He also argued, “Being part of a group does not denote that a member has each (of) the privileges exercised by that group. For example, a member of a sports team who is suspended from the team is still a member of the team. What is under suspension, is the privilege of playing on the team for a time. Similar to practicing law, a member of the bar is suspended from practicing law for a time, but still a member.”

Preddy’s attorneys, however, filed a motion for final judgment last week that disputed such an interpretation. The motion pointed to legal precedents and said DuPont’s “eight-month disciplinary suspension from the practice of law less than five years ago renders him constitutionally ineligible for the office of circuit judge in this year’s election cycle.”

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“Under (the section of the Florida Constitution), a candidate for office who has been suspended from the practice of law is not a ‘member of the bar of Florida’ during the period of suspension for purposes of eligibility to hold an office requiring Florida Bar membership for a prescribed period of time,” wrote Preddy’s attorneys, who include prominent Tallahassee lawyers Daniel Nordby and Barry Richard and former state Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston.

Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh is scheduled to hear arguments in the case Wednesday.

Preddy was appointed last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis as a judge in the 7th Circuit, which is made up of St. Johns, Putnam, Flagler and Volusia counties. Preddy filed the lawsuit after an April qualifying period in which she and DuPont submitted paperwork to the state Division of Elections and were deemed candidates for the seat.

They are the only candidates who qualified, and the race — if DuPont is on the ballot — will be decided during the Aug. 20 primary election.

DuPont was suspended from practicing law after the Supreme Court removed him as a circuit judge in 2018 because of improper conduct. The removal came after an investigation that, in part, focused on allegations that DuPont spread false information about his 2016 election opponent.

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