The 1st District Court of Appeal's decision on Wednesday to restore Jim Norman as the Republican nominee for a state Senate seat defies logic and condones corruption. A three-judge panel ruled that a trial judge erred in removing Norman after finding the Hillsborough County commissioner tried to "deceive the public" by not reporting a $500,000 check a political supporter gave to Norman's wife, Mearline. The appeals court turned common sense, the law and ethics on its head. The Florida Supreme Court should hear the case and overturn the appellate court.
Even in a banner season of election sleaze, Norman's case set a new low. The longtime county commissioner explained at trial that he did not report the money on his financial disclosure form because the Arkansas lakefront home his wife bought with the money was a private business arrangement between his wife and concrete magnate Ralph Hughes. Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford, in a compelling ruling, dismissed the Normans' story as "patently absurd." She found that Hughes provided the money "for the benefit of Jim Norman," that the commissioner should have disclosed it and that his failure to do so rendered him ineligible for the Senate seat.
There could not be a sharper contrast between the trial court's exhaustive findings and the appeals court's breezy reversal. The three-judge panel went to great lengths to wash the judiciary's hands of ensuring fair elections. The court expressed its concern with being involved "with an election that has already taken place" — even though state law clearly establishes the right to contest an election result. It then tried to marginalize such legal challenges as "political in nature," even though the trial judge found that Norman was required to disclose the money to legally qualify as a candidate before the primary. The court finished by making a nonsensical argument that while the state Constitution requires financial disclosure, there is no real penalty for not complying.
The 1st DCA missed an opportunity to underscore the entire purpose behind requiring candidates for office to disclose their finances. The public has a right to know if candidates or elected officials have a business relationship with the people who appear before them. Voters need the same information to make a responsible choice come election time. The appeals court takes the bizarre tack of faulting Norman's opponent in the GOP primary, state Rep. Kevin Ambler, for not suing earlier. The issue all along — as the trial court held — was Norman's failure to disclose the money from the outset.
Do the campaign laws mean something, or not? Norman could be occupying a state Senate seat beginning next month. Voters in the 12th District are confused — and already voting. First, Norman won the primary. Then he was removed from the ballot. Then the Republican Party named a replacement. Now Norman is the nominee again. It has been a dizzying, dismaying look at Florida politics. The least the Supreme Court can do is disavow the notion by the 1st DCA that candidates do not have to follow the law and that fair elections are not the court's business.