TALLAHASSEE — The federal judge overseeing a challenge to Republican-backed restrictions to a measure restoring felon voting rights stepped away from the case Wednesday after one of the defendants, he said, made a “deeply troubling” legal maneuver.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who has frequently drawn the ire of Republicans — including former Gov. Rick Scott — said he was prompted to back off the case after a Scott loyalist created the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Pete Antonacci, Scott’s former chief of staff, hired an attorney from the law firm where Walker’s wife works as a partner. Antonacci made the hire as Broward’s supervisor of elections, a position he was appointed to last year by Scott, now a U.S. Senator.
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Antonacci’s hire was an attempt to oust him from the case, Walker implied.
“Although the conduct at issue is deeply troubling,” Walker wrote, “I am relieved of those concerns by confidence in my colleagues on this Court to preside over the remainder of this case and judge it fairly and wisely.”
Walker’s abrupt departure was the latest twist in the battle over Amendment 4, a ballot measure that 64.5 percent of Florida voters passed last year. The measure was intended to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who had completed their sentences.
GOP lawmakers in May, however, passed a bill restricting Amendment 4, tacking on a requirement that felons pay back all court costs, fees and restitution before being eligible to register. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it. Yet such a requirement would prohibit hundreds of thousands of felons from registering, nullifying much of the measure and spurring legal challenges from more than a dozen felons.
Republicans might have a deep desire to see Walker kicked off the case. A federal judge who was appointed by President Barack Obama, Walker has frequently sided against Scott and other state Republicans, particularly on voting issues. In a previous ruling, Walker criticized the limited way Scott and the Republican Cabinet restored felon rights as “nonsensical.”
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Still, if getting the case reassigned to a more sympathetic judge was the intent, then it’s unclear how successful the maneuver was. The case has been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
The attorney Antonacci hired was George Meros of the Holland & Knight law firm. He’s been a fixture in Tallahassee for decades, representing the GOP-controlled Legislature in its epic redistricting battles with the state Supreme Court between 2012 and 2015.
A spokesman for Antonacci on Wednesday said he has known Meros for decades and that the hiring was not an attempt to kick Walker off the case.
“George Meros is a highly regarded, widely regarded expert in this area of law,” said Steve Vancore, spokesman for Antonacci. “His street cred is off the charts.”
“Judge-shopping,” as it’s known, isn’t uncommon in cases. Most of the plaintiffs in the Amendment 4 lawsuit are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed its lawsuit in Gainesville — perhaps with the intention of getting the case before Walker. Representatives there declined comment.
But another lawyer representing other felons said that with such high stakes before the 2020 election, changing the judge is an obvious tactic.
“It could be the difference between a Democrat or a Republican winning the 2020 election,” said Tampa attorney Michael Steinberg, a Democrat. “You’re going to do everything you can to stop former felons from registering to vote and voting in the 2020 election.
“So do I blame them for trying everything possible to stop this? No, I don’t.”
Antonacci himself has been at the heart of several political controversies. As Scott’s chief counsel in 2014 and 2015, Antonacci played a central role in a political battle involving allegations of meddling over the ouster of the Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. After 35 years in law enforcement, Bailey said he was forced to quit without explanation. He asserted that Antonacci was the one who delivered the message that he need to resign or retire. Scott later promoted Antonacci to be the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District and Enterprise Florida, the state’s business-recruitment agency.
Holland & Knight is a major law firm, with more than 1,000 lawyers around the world, and it’s not the first time Walker has faced a conflict over his wife.
The court, he wrote, has a process for dealing with “frivolous recusals brought on by unscrupulous shenanigans.” For instance, as Walker did in 2016, he can get another judge to review the case. That judge ended up kicking the Holland & Knight lawyer off the case, he wrote.
But Walker said he wouldn’t use that process in this case.
The judge who gets the case won’t have the last word, anyway. No matter how the judge rules, it will be appealed.
“Nobody is just going to say, ‘Oh well, we lost, so what,’” Steinberg said. “It’s a huge deal.”