A Leon County Circuit Court judge ruled Friday that Rebekah Jones could not run as a Democrat in the Aug. 23 primary election.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper disqualified Jones as a candidate after a virtual hearing Friday in a lawsuit filed by his Democratic opponent for the 1st Congressional District of Florida, Peggy Schiller.
“It’s not a happy decision to make,” Cooper said when explaining his decision. “I think anyone running for office should be congratulated.”
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A Florida election law passed last year requires anyone running for partisan office to be registered as a party member for a full year before qualifying begins in June.
Jones released a statement on her campaign’s Facebook page on Friday saying she would appeal the decision.
“We are appealing immediately, and voters can rest assured that we are not going to let Peggy Schiller, her GOP attorney, or anyone else steal this election from voters,” Jones wrote.
Schiller, a retired corporate attorney who lives in Walton County and has been active in the local Democratic Party there, also posted a statement on her campaign Facebook page saying she was pleased with the decision.
“I believe justice has been served,” Schiller said.
Schiller said Jones would have been disqualified under the same legal arguments by Republicans if Jones had won the Aug. 23 primary.
“I’ve always wanted to do this campaign to defeat our poor excuse for Rep. Matt Gaetz,” Schiller wrote. “That will now be our only goal, and we hope voters in the First Congressional District will join me in achieving that goal.”
Florida’s 1st Congressional District covers northwest Florida and is a Republican stronghold. Rep. Matt Gaetz currently holds the seat, but faces a well-funded main challenge from former FedEx executive and Vietnam veteran Mark Lombardo, as well as former military pilot Greg Merk.
Gaetz reacted to the ruling on Twitter saying he does not celebrate voters being denied a choice and it was “petty” of Schiller to seek Jones’ defeat in a courtroom rather than during the primary.
“Having said that, it seems obvious that the judge followed the law and that Rebekah Jones is a fraud in pretty much everything she does,” Gaetz said.
Jones became a national figure after being fired from the Florida Department of Health in 2020.
She accused top state health officials of firing her for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data to support the drive to reopen Florida after months of quarantine. She made several national media appearances to sound the alarm about the manipulation of state data while administration officials cast doubt on her allegations from the outset.
A state inspector general granted her whistleblower status, but a state investigation completed earlier this year determined there was no evidence to support her claims.
What the lawsuit against Rebekah Jones alleged
Schiller’s lawsuit alleged that while living in Maryland in 2021, Jones registered to vote in the state in April 2021 as a Democrat. She then changed her party affiliation to “unaffiliated” on June 11, 2021.
The documents show Jones changed his affiliation to Democratic on August 11, which would mean Jones missed the registration requirement by about two months.
Jones said she only registered to vote in Maryland once as a Democrat and the other two changes filed with the state of Maryland were not made by her.
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Ben Kuehne, Jones’ attorney, pointed out during Jones’ testimony that Jones had gained wide publicity after his dismissal.
Jones said she moved to Maryland because she was receiving death threats.
During an explanation of his decision, Cooper said it was not impossible that someone hacked Jones or used his information to change his voter registration, but the weight of other evidence made it unlikely. .
Jones filed for Congress with the Federal Election Commission on June 25, 2021, as an independent candidate. She switched her candidacy to the Democratic Party with the FEC on August 12, 2021, a day after Jones voter registration in Maryland reverted to Democratic.
Kuehne also argued that Jones’ decision to run as an independent in June 2021 before becoming the Democratic candidate in August 2021 had no bearing on her individual party affiliation remaining with the Democratic Party.
Cooper said he didn’t buy into that legal argument.
A crucial point of information that Kuehne repeatedly pointed out was the fact that the two changes Jones said she did not make to her Maryland voter registration did not include her middle name.
JC Planas, Schiller’s lawyer and a former Republican state legislator who left the party after Donald Trump was elected, said Jones’ argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
“Someone with all of her information, trying to defame her (by) making her a non-party registered voter in Maryland at the same time she is filing her candidacy to run for Congress as an independent and telling the press that she’s running as an independent, her argument doesn’t hold water at all,” Planas said.
Cooper said he was initially convinced by the discrepancy in names on the forms until he saw the FEC forms and Jones’ own testimony that she did not prepare her forms herself. the country.
“At some point you can prove a crime with circumstantial evidence,” Cooper said. “…There is no credible evidence that any other person is doing this or that any other person has any motivation. There is ample evidence that Mrs. Jones or anyone is assisting Mrs. Jones in her campaign to do this .”
Cooper said he didn’t like having to rule the way he did, but had no choice based on the evidence.
“I don’t think I can draw any other conclusion that Ms. Jones was not a registered member of the Democratic Party for nearly two months during this (crucial) period,” Cooper said.
As Cooper explained his decision, Jones cut him off, saying she could provide documentation proving she was hacked. The judge immediately kicked her out of the Zoom hearing, saying he wasn’t allowing anyone to speak during a decision, especially a party to the case.
Cooper let Jones return to the hearing with the directive that she was not allowed to speak. When she was allowed back into the virtual hearing, Jones said she didn’t realize she wasn’t mute when she spoke earlier.
Jones can appeal the ruling, and Cooper said he will issue the final order in the case by Monday to give Jones the maximum amount of time to appeal the case.
Ballots in the race between Schiller and Jones have already been sent to voters.
If the First District Court of Appeals upholds the decision, Schiller will automatically win the Democratic Party nomination on Aug. 23, and any ballots cast for Jones will not be counted.
Jim Little can be reached at email@example.com and 850-208-9827.
This article originally appeared on the Pensacola News Journal: Rebekah Jones disqualified for running as a Democrat in August 23 primary