By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
A federal judge who has routinely ruled against the state in election-related lawsuits has withdrawn from overseeing a challenge to a new state statute aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to Floridians convicted of felonies.
U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker on Wednesday filed an order disqualifying himself from the case, saying his wife works for the same law firm as an attorney who recently signed up to represent two of the defendants, including Secretary of State Laurel Lee.
George Meros of Holland & Knight LLP filed a notice with the court Tuesday, saying he would represent Lee and Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci. Walker’s wife, Karen, also works for the firm.
In his order Wednesday, Walker, who serves as the chief judge of Florida’s Northern District, hinted that the move to hire Meros may have been intended to force Walker off the case, writing that “the conduct at issue here is deeply troubling.”
Walker pointed to a 2015 lawsuit in which defendants hired Holland & Knight mid-way through the judicial proceedings. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit accused the defendants of “judge shopping” by intentionally hiring a lawyer from the firm where Walker’s wife worked so another judge would be assigned to the case. Walker did not recuse himself, but asked for an opinion from another judge in the matter.
Senior District Judge Maurice Paul instead disqualified Holland & Knight from the case, allowing Walker to remain in charge of a contentious legal battle over a fuel surcharge fee being charged by a waste removal company.
In his April 2016 decision keeping Walker as the judge in the case, Paul wrote that Holland & Knight “should be disqualified because of the potential for manipulation of the judicial system, the lack of need by defendants for this particular counsel, and the potential delay and loss of judicial activity,” a finding Walker referred to in Wednesday’s order.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals “has outlined a process to differentiate legitimate judicial recusal necessary under federal law from frivolous recusals brought on by unscrupulous shenanigans,” Walker wrote.
While Walker asked another judge to weigh in on his recusal in the fuel surcharge case, the federal judge said he “will not employ that process” now.
“Although the conduct at issue is deeply troubling, I am relieved of those concerns by confidence in my collegues on this court to preside over the remainder of this case and judge it fairly and wisely,” he wrote.
The circumstances surrounding the current lawsuit differ from those in the fuel surcharge case in several ways.
The elections complaint, comprised of four lawsuits consolidated by Walker into a single case earlier this month, was filed less than three weeks ago. Meros has represented numerous Republican legislative leaders, and the lawyer also represented the Florida House during court battles over redistricting several years ago.
The elections lawsuit, which has been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, is centered on provisions in a new law that went into effect July 1.
A number of plaintiffs — represented by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund — are challenging parts of the law that will require Floridians convicted of felonies to pay financial obligations related to their crimes before they are eligible to have voting rights restored.
The plaintiffs allege the legislation unconstitutionally “creates two classes of citizens,” depending on their ability to pay financial obligations that many don’t even know about.