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School reopening lawsuit transferred to Leon County

Judge Spencer Eig says the state government has 'home venue privilege.'

Noting the “crucial statewide importance” of the debate over Florida’s school reopening order, Miami-Dade County Judge Spencer Eig on Thursday sent the case to the Leon County judicial circuit so it can receive a faster review.

Had he decided to retain the Florida Education Association’s legal challenge in his court, Eig noted, the matter would have become bogged down in procedural arguments over venue. With some schools set to resume classes on Monday, he decided against that path.

He said he would work with the Miami-Dade clerk of courts to get the case moved to the state capital as soon as possible, “and hopefully see if we can get a new judge assigned in that circuit by the end of the day today so the case can move forward quickly on the merits.”

The FEA had filed its lawsuit in Miami because, lawyer Kendall Coffey explained, Miami has become an epicenter for COVID-19, so the risks of requiring in-person instruction are most dangerous there.

“This case belongs where the urgency and the risk and the degree ... is qualitatively and profoundly different,” he argued.

Related: Teacher lawsuit challenges Florida’s school reopening order

The fact that Miami-Dade schools have decided not to open classrooms for several weeks is simply a reprieve that does not eliminate the risks, Coffey added.

But he, too, raised concerns that the arguments over where the case would be heard could hinder the outcome. He criticized the state government for refusing to enter mediation over the issues related to reopening, as well as its insistence that the hearings take place in Tallahassee.

In fact, Coffey said, if the governor or education commissioner would have been willing to state publicly that school districts would not face financial penalties for their local reopening decisions, the case likely could disappear in an hour.

“They will not agree to that,” Coffey said.

Angel Cortinas, representing the government, contended that the plaintiffs could have sped the process along by not insisting that the case be held in Miami. He noted case law supports the notion that constitutional challenges on statewide import should be conducted in the home county of an agency’s headquarters, in this case the state capital.

He further suggested that the entire case is without merit, as the state has not forced any person or school system to do anything. School districts have flexibility in their reopening plans, Cortinas noted, and online-only plans that have been submitted “are being reviewed and approved as we speak.”

Related: Florida schools ordered to reopen in August, if conditions allow

Eig agreed with the venue argument, saying the case properly belonged in Leon County. Once it gets there, the issues relating to the state’s motion to dismiss and the union’s request to stop the state’s order can be taken up.

In an online news conference later Thursday, FEA officials reiterated their disappointment with the government’s effort to “slow walk” the lawsuit. They applauded Eig’s decision to allow the case to move forward.

“The governor is trying to run out the time, and we are steadfast,” FEA president Fed Ingram said. “We believe we have a very strong case. ... This is a matter of life and death.”

He stressed that the FEA is not looking for a strike. Everyone wants to go back to school, he said, just safely and guided by science.

Coffey said the state could appeal an eventual ruling in the union’s favor. That would be “unfortunate,” he said, but he expected an appeals court would quickly act if called upon.

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