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Court clears way for Jones in congressional race

Former Florida data scientist Rebekah Jones turned herself in to authorities Sunday night. She accuses the state of retaliating against her for speaking out about its COVID-19 policies and officials' decisions related to the pandemic.
Courtesy Rebekah Jones
Former Florida data scientist Rebekah Jones turned herself in to authorities Sunday night. She accuses the state of retaliating against her for speaking out about its COVID-19 policies and officials' decisions related to the pandemic.

On the eve of the primary election, an appeals court Monday overturned a ruling that would have blocked Democrat Rebekah Jones from running for a Northwest Florida congressional seat.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal rejected a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper that said Jones was ineligible to run in Congressional District 1 because she had not been a member of the Democratic Party for 365 days before qualifying for the race.

Jones, a former Florida Department of Health employee, entered the race after drawing widespread attention for alleging that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration manipulated COVID-19 data. Her primary opponent, Peggy Schiller, and another plaintiff filed the lawsuit in July challenging Jones’ eligibility.

Cooper cited a two-month period in 2021 when Jones was registered without party affiliation, saying that made her ineligible under the 365-day requirement in state law.

The appeals-court ruling, however, did not focus on whether Jones had been a registered Democrat for the required amount of time. Instead, it said state law did not allow the legal challenge after the Department of State had determined that Jones qualified for the ballot.

The law requires candidates to affirm in writing that they meet requirements related to party affiliation. But the appeals-court ruling said the law “does not require proof of actual party affiliation, nor does it speak at all to disqualification of a candidate if those sworn affirmations turn out to be untrue. It provides no express authority to disqualify a party candidate if she was not in fact a registered party member during the 365-day window.”

“If we were to construe the party affiliation statement in (a section of state law) as a basis for disqualification, we would be reading into the statute what the Legislature chose not to include,” said the ruling, written by Judge Rachel Nordby and joined by Judges Harvey Jay and Scott Makar.

Makar, in a concurring opinion, pointed to a “gap in the statute” and wrote that the Legislature “may wish to consider implementing a mechanism to decide, early-on, the bona fides of a political primary candidate’s party oath; currently, one is lacking and requires that political party candidates be taken at their word, which is likely not to be sustainable.”

“As a foundational matter … if a government-run primary election is to be feasible, a statutory standard of some sort is necessary to categorize and deem eligible those who seek the nomination of a political party,” Makar wrote. “The standard may be lax or strict, but who is to enforce the statutory standard and when enforcement is allowed ought to be made clear in the statute itself, which this case demonstrates is lacking. At a minimum, a political party ought to have a point of entry and a means to express its view about candidates’ party qualifications under the statute; and a limited window for legal challenge ought to be specified to avoid the type of on-the-ballot/off-the-ballot seesaw that occurred in this case.”

Makar also suggested the current law could lead to chicanery.

“Moreover, it gives me great pause in voting to reverse the trial court’s thoughtful and facially reasonable order that some ill-motivated ne’er-do-wells may attempt to pawn themselves off as legitimate members of a political party, when they are not, simply to inject chaos or conspiratorial intrigue into a party’s primary; the ingenuity and unscrupulousness reflected in political gamesmanship knows no bounds,” Makar wrote. “In this case, however, it is clear that the candidate in question falls decidedly in the Democrat side of the ledger and is not attempting to be a non-Democrat in Democrat clothing.”

Democrats are seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in Congressional District 1 in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. Gaetz faces two GOP opponents in Tuesday’s primary in the heavily Republican district.

The decision Monday came after the Tallahassee-based appeals court on Friday also overturned a Cooper ruling that would have blocked Republican Jerry Torres from running in Congressional District 14 in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The Florida Democratic Party and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit alleging Torres did not have qualifying paperwork properly notarized.

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida