Judge denies challenge to Tampa judicial race results

Tampa Judge Steven Scott Stephens, who lost his reelection bid in the August primary, had argued that the race should have been decided in the general election.
Circuit Judge Scott Stephens has been on the bench since 2005.
Circuit Judge Scott Stephens has been on the bench since 2005. [ Steven Scott Stephens ]
Published Nov. 11, 2020

TAMPA — A fellow judge has ruled against Hillsborough Circuit Judge Steven Scott Stephens in his bid to nullify the results of his August election, which he lost.

In an eight-page order signed Tuesday, Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino denied Stephens' claim that the election process was unconstitutional.

Stephens had argued that the Florida constitution requires that judicial elections be decided in the November general election. He said state law disobeys that rule, allowing most judicial races to be decided in the August primary.

He filed his lawsuit with the aim of stopping the state from certifying the results of his race, which would create a judicial vacancy to be filled by the governor.

But Rondolino disagreed, finding that the law does not conflict with the constitution, nor does it disenfranchise voters.

“(Stephens) is asking the court to find that the judicial election process used for five decades in Florida is unconstitutional,” Rondolino wrote. “Application of his proposed interpretation of the law would not only apply to his lost election but would put into question all other judicial elections that have taken place in a primary. This court does not find any merit in his argument and also concludes he cannot complain at this point.”

Related: Tampa judge who lost primary asks Florida high court to nix results

Stephens told the Tampa Bay Times he wasn’t certain Wednesday whether he would appeal Rondolino’s decision.

“I’m still weighing my options,” Stephens said. “I respect Judge Rondolino a lot. He made a ruling, and I respect his ruling.”

Stephens was appointed to the Hillsborough circuit court in 2005 by former Gov. Jeb Bush. He was subsequently reelected multiple times without opposition, but this year drew a reelection challenge from Tampa lawyer Wendy DePaul.

DePaul campaigned vigorously and ultimately beat Stephens in August with about 52 percent of the vote.

Then came the lawsuit, which Stephens filed last week in the Florida Supreme Court, naming Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee as defendants.

The high court kicked the case back to Tampa. But since Stephens is a judge there, Rondolino was appointed as an acting judge in the Hillsborough circuit.

A lawyer for DePaul filed a request to intervene in the case, but the ruling came before any further arguments. DePaul declined Wednesday to comment.

Stephens said the ruling wasn’t particularly unexpected, but that he thought the issue was worth bringing to a court’s attention.

“The whole issue had never been raised or addressed, and I wanted to get somebody to look at it, and I’ve done that,” Stephens said. “Whether any deeper look is warranted, I don’t know.”