Judge: Rick Scott overstepped when he suspended Broward’s embattled elections chief

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker found that Rick Scott exceeded his authority when, on the heels of a controversial election recount, he suspended Brenda Snipes from office.
Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes MARSHA HALPER
Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes MARSHA HALPER
Published Jan. 10, 2019|Updated Jan. 10, 2019

As signs build that Florida's new governor may suspend Broward County's elected sheriff from office, a federal judge has ruled that the state's former governor overstepped when he effectively fired Broward County's elections supervisor.

In a Wednesday evening order, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker found that Rick Scott exceeded his authority when, on the heels of a controversial election recount, he suspended Brenda Snipes from office. Due to the timing of her removal and her plans to resign in early January, Snipes was left without the ability to challenge her ouster or contest the allegations contained in Scott's executive order.

Walker declined to reinstate Snipes, a 15-year veteran of the elections department, which she had sought in the form of a preliminary injunction. He also agreed that the Florida Senate was right to deny her a hearing that by law is typically afforded politicians who seek to challenge a suspension by the governor.

But he did order Scott's successor, the newly elected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, to issue a new order by the end of the month explaining the reasons for Snipes' suspension, and demand that Snipes be granted a special hearing before the governor no later than March 31.

"Judges face murky legal issues every day. Today is not one of those days," wrote Walker, who has been critical of Scott in previous rulings. "Flagrantly disregarding [Snipes'] constitutional rights fits into an unfortunate rhythm for Scott."

Walker, of Tallahassee, was explicit that he was not mandating an outcome that Snipes be reinstated and wrote that he was not aware "of any principle demanding such a remedy." But he said that Snipes must have a forum to be heard.

A spokesman for Scott, who was sworn in as a U.S. Senator Tuesday, dismissed Walker as a "liberal judge" and said Scott "stands by his decision." He pointed to a number of mistakes made by Snipes' office during the 2018 recount of the governor's race and Scott's U.S. Senate race against Bill Nelson, and to past missteps involving the Broward elections office under Snipes. Snipes has been re-elected four times since being appointed in 2003.

"Supervisor Snipes violated state law and turned Broward County's elections operation into a laughing stock," said Scott spokesman Chris Hartline. "She failed to fulfill her duties, and for that she was suspended and should stay suspended."

Still, though DeSantis has also been critical of Snipes — even alluding to botched elections in his inaugural speech — Walker's ruling seems to leave the new governor to clean up the old governor's controversy. Scott began the ordeal in November when he suspended Snipes less than two weeks after she announced plans to resign on Jan. 4.

A day after Scott suspended her, Snipes rescinded her resignation and said she would fight back against claims of incompetence and misconduct.

Scott immediately replaced her with his former general counsel, Pete Antonacci, which according to the Florida Senate sealed her resignation as irrevocable despite her subsequent reversal and attempts to fight to keep her job. That, Walker said, left Snipes no ability to properly contest the allegations that Scott made in removing her — some of which Walker said were erroneous.

Snipes' attorney, Burnadette Norris-Weeks, said Wednesday night that the ousted supervisor's legal team is pleased with Walker's determination that Scott could not legally "vilify" Snipes without giving her a chance to respond (Walker was not taken by an argument from Scott's attorney that Snipes could respond through the press.)

"Scott utilized numerous tactics to bully my client and apply standards to her that he did not apply to any other state Supervisor of Elections," said Norris-Weeks. "We are looking forward to telling our complete story and we're also encouraged that Judge Walker recognized that former governor Scott has a history of disregarding the legal rights of others…"

A DeSantis spokesman had no comment late Wednesday, but Walker's ruling could complicate his apparent plans to suspend Broward Sheriff Scott Israel.

DeSantis has hinted that he'll suspend Israel, whom he criticized on the campaign trail over the Broward Sheriff's Office's response to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. DeSantis has suggested that he's vetting replacements for Israel, and said Wednesday morning that he'll "be back soon" in South Florida when asked if he was going to suspend Israel.