TAMPA — In a stunning reversal of a judge's ruling against Jim Norman, an appeals court Wednesday restored the Hillsborough County commissioner to the ballot for state Senate.
Even though a Tallahassee lawsuit revealed that Norman's wife accepted $500,000 from a businessman who appeared frequently before the commission and the trial unearthed other allegations about Norman, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that none of those issues matter.
What does matter, the three judges wrote, is that Norman meets all of the state's constitutional requirements to stay on the ballot.
The voters chose Norman in the Aug. 24 primary, they wrote, warning that "courts must take care in post-election challenges to avoid disenfranchising voters without clear statutory warrant."
Ambler could have taken his concerns to the state Commission on Ethics, they wrote. Their ruling reversed Leon Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford's Oct. 15 decision to toss Norman from the ballot for not disclosing the $500,000 gift.
Although the Legislature could refuse Norman a seat, incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos said this after the ruling: "The judicial process has run its course and has ruled in Jim Norman's favor. Republicans selected him as their nominee in Senate District 12, and if he wins on Nov. 2, he will be seated as a new member of the Florida Senate."
It was unclear Wednesday if that was the final battle between Norman and his onetime friend, Republican lawyer and state House member Kevin Ambler. It was Ambler who sued Norman a week after losing to him in the GOP primary. He alleged Norman was not qualified because his financial disclosures were not complete.
At issue was a lakefront house in northern Arkansas that Norman's wife bought in 2006 with $500,000 from businessman Ralph Hughes. The FBI separately is investigating the connection between Norman and Hughes, who died in 2008.
During the trial challenging Norman's candidacy, Ambler alleged that Norman asked him for legal advice about protecting an interest in the house. In depositions, he accused Norman of habitual sports betting and trading envelopes of gambling money with Hughes. Norman and his lawyer said both statements were pure lies.
"This matter should have been dismissed from the outset," Norman's attorney Frank Winkles said in a statement Wednesday. "The loser of an election should not be allowed to file such a spurious lawsuit after the voters have spoken."
Norman will speak publicly later in the week, Winkles said.
Republican leaders reacted with mostly measured comments.
"It is what it is," said Deborah Cox-Roush, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Republican Party. "He's back on the ballot and we're going to support him."
Rob Wallace, a former legislator who was chosen just last weekend to replace Norman, said, "We are presumed innocent in this country" and that "On Nov. 2, even if we do not have all of the answers we would like, voters will have to use their best judgment. It's a very soul-searching kind of vote."
The choices for voters in the district, which includes northern Hillsborough and central Pasco, are Norman and two write-in candidates: Derek Crabb, the assistant manager of a Petco store; and Kimberly Renspie, a college student in North Carolina. There is no Democrat in the race.
Others were more exuberant.
"Hats off to Jim Norman for sticking to his guns," said Ryan Rodems, a Tampa lawyer who represented Republican voters in recent challenges.
Brian Blair, a former county commissioner who had been mentioned as a possible Norman replacement, said, "I waited and watched. I knew how hard Jim worked for the seat. Justice prevailed because it was the will of the voters."
Neither Ambler, nor his attorneys would comment Wednesday. Previously, Ambler said he would fight all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.
But that might not be so easy, said several lawyers who are not connected to the case.
While the high court can choose to hear the case, Ambler would probably need to find a conflicting ruling from another court elsewhere in the state, Rodems said. Or the Tallahassee-based appeals court would need to ask the Supreme Court to certify the ruling as a matter of great public importance.
Both scenarios are unlikely, he said. And time is running out. "There is no way on God's green earth that this would be resolved before the election next week."
Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons said the Supreme Court could deny Ambler's petition without hearing it. "The whole case is so bordering on the bizarre it's hard to predict what any court would do here," he said.
Tallahassee elections lawyer Ron Meyer said the ruling was significant in that it clarified the meaning of qualification, limiting it largely to what is in the Constitution. "This clarification provides guidance for all of us," he said.
It also serves to discourage other such suits, including one against state House candidate James Grant, concerning an alleged last-minute loan to his campaign.
"If I was the person suing Jamie Grant," Rodems said, "I would dismiss that lawsuit before the sun went down."
Staff writers Steve Bosquet and Sue Carlton contributed to this report.