Rebekah Jones asks court to put ballot ruling on hold
Democrat Rebekah Jones asked an appeals court Thursday to put on hold a circuit judge’s ruling that disqualified her from running for a Northwest Florida congressional seat.
Jones, a former state Department of Health employee who drew widespread attention when she alleged Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration manipulated COVID-19 data, also asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to quickly consider her underlying appeal of Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper’s ruling that she was ineligible to run.
Benedict Kuehne, an attorney for Jones, argued in a 16-page motion that the Tallahassee-based appeals court should issue a stay of Cooper’s ruling as the Aug. 23 primary election approaches. Peggy Schiller, another Democrat seeking the Congressional District 1 seat, is one of two plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging Jones’ candidacy.
“(Absent) a stay pending appellate review, Ms. Jones and the voters of Congressional District 1 are denied their constitutional right to exercise their election prerogative to vote for the candidate of their choice,” Kuehne wrote. “An immediate stay and direction to allow the voting for both primary candidates for Congressional District 1 to continue unabated is essential to prevent these harms, preserve the status quo right to vote and seek public office and ensure that Ms. Jones can have meaningful relief if this court reverses the final judgment (by Cooper).”
Democrats are seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in the heavily Republican district in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties.
Cooper issued a written ruling Monday that said Jones did not meet a legal requirement of being a registered Democrat for 365 days before qualifying to run for the congressional seat. As a result, he said she was not eligible for the ballot.
The judge ordered Secretary of State Cord Byrd to decertify Jones as a candidate and directed county elections supervisors to comply with requirements about “notice to voters and tabulation of votes, when a candidate has been disqualified.” He also denied a request for a stay of his ruling while Jones appealed.
“This court is keenly aware and sensitive to the right of citizens to choose their representatives and that the involvement by the court in the democratic process is an action to be taken only after serious and thoughtful reflection,” Cooper wrote. “While it provides this court no pleasure in removing a candidate from the ballot, and the court makes no judgment on the wisdom of the statute, the statute is clear, unambiguous and constitutional.”
In the motion filed Thursday at the appeals court, Kuehne raised a series of issues, including whether the plaintiffs had legal standing to challenge Jones’ party membership as a qualification for the ballot. Kuehne wrote that the Florida Democratic Party, which is not involved in the Jones case, should be the “the determiner if a party candidate is not qualified.”
“The trial court’s judgment injures Ms. Jones’ constitutionally protected campaign activities, such as endorsement, fundraising, and get-out-the-vote efforts,” the motion said. “Even before the final judgment, the mere pendency of the lawsuit cast a cloud over Ms. Jones’ candidacy. Until this (1st District) court decides the appeal, this harm will continue unabated.”