The lawsuit challenging Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s order that schools must reopen for in-person classes in August is about to get real.
Nearly a month after the Florida Education Association filed its complaint, Leon County Judge Charles Dodson on Thursday scheduled the first formal hearing on issues for 11 a.m. Friday.
Dodson gave the sides 90 minutes to debate the state’s motion to dismiss the case, and signaled that he will rule shortly after. If he allows the suit to proceed, Dodson has ordered the sides to attempt to mediate their differences, with a conclusion no later than midnight Tuesday.
If they haven’t reached an agreement, he said, hearings on the request to quash Corcoran’s order would begin at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Dodson set aside two days for arguments.
He also consolidated a similar case from Orange County into the case, saying the two shared common issues of law and fact. Plaintiffs in each case seek to set aside the state order, calling it unconstitutional.
A separate case filed this week in Pasco County is not part of the proceeding.
At first, Dodson sounded inclined to hear motions right away.
“Are y’all ready for all three of these (pending motions) to be handled this morning?” he asked the lawyers gathered for the online conference, which was streamed on YouTube.
The attorneys for each side answered that they’d do what the judge wanted, but suggested that they needed some added time to prepare. Lawyers for the plaintiffs asked for a day or so extra, while those for the state defense sought a bit longer.
Thursday’s call was supposed to be for scheduling, not for the actual hearing, all acknowledged.
As each side postured over the importance of their arguments, and the immediacy of the issues, Dodson pushed the matter.
He agreed with David Wells, representing the state, that the motion to dismiss should come first. He offered 12:30 p.m., saying he had a cancellation on his calendar.
Again, the sides said they weren’t ready. They needed to prepare arguments and documents and such, they said.
Mark Richard, a Florida Education Association lawyer, suggested that while that legal work goes on, perhaps the judge could mandate mediation. Each side has plenty of lawyers, he observed.
“We can crowd our schedules and try,” he said.
Initially reluctant because of the time crunch, Dodson eventually relented, noting that a resolution agreed upon by the parties likely would be better than what the court might decide. If he denies the motion to dismiss, he said, the sides must enter mediation.
If that doesn’t work, the injunction hearing will follow.
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Ron Meyer, representing the plaintiffs, stressed that the sides “don’t have time to dally here. It is critical that these constitutional issues be resolved.”
He argued that the state has ignored the state Constitution’s mandate for safe and secure public education, and its authorization of local school boards to control and operate schools in their districts. Corcoran’s order “just basically stepped across all those constitutional lines,” he said.
Wells contended that the plaintiffs are asking the courts to step into a governing issue, not a constitutional one. He suggested the complaint seeks to deprive children of a safe, secure and high quality education, not provide one.
“We believe it will be shown that this is a political question that your honor cannot answer,” Wells said.