Pasco County School Board hopeful Al Hernandez has suffered another legal blow in his fight to remain on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Days after circuit court Judge Susan Barthle declared him ineligible for the general election, Hernandez hired new high-profile Tallahassee lawyers who made an immediate request. They wanted Barthle to put a stay on her order while he appealed.
The judge ruled Oct. 10 that Hernandez did not live in the district he sought to represent at the time of qualifying. A stay would have had the effect of allowing Hernandez, who placed first in the August primary, to remain on the ballot and continue campaigning while attorneys debated the legalities in the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
In a two-page order released late Tuesday, Barthle wrote that she “strongly disagrees” with Hernandez’s contention that he is likely to prevail on appeal.
While the decision to remove him from the ballot was not something she took lightly, she stated, “the decision of whether or not Mr. Hernandez actually resided in the house in Zephyrhills was not difficult.”
No one ever disputed that he never spent a single night living at the home before or during the June qualifying period, she wrote.
“The language of the statute is clear and concise, stating that a candidate shall live in the district that he or she is seeking office, and that means at the time of qualifying, not some time subsequent,” Barthle wrote.
She also took issue with the argument that Hernandez would suffer irreparable harm without a stay, while a stay would not prejudice voters if he loses the appeal. Barthle wrote that the potential for “significant voter disenfranchisement” is great if Hernandez does not prevail.
Additionally, she wrote, the chance for voter confusion would be great, as the supervisor of elections already has begun sending out notifications with absentee ballots that votes in the race will not count because of the disqualification.
Her ruling declared teacher James Washington as the sole remaining eligible candidate for the seat, which is now reflected on the county election website.
“The entry of a stay would simply create additional confusion for voters and certainly prejudice the supervisor of elections,” she wrote.
Washington has urged his supporters to continue voting and not take the ruling for granted, as it might change.
“No one in the U.S. is above the law,” Washington said. “I appreciate Judge Barthle’s ruling. Elected officials have to be trusted when they take their oath.”
Hernandez and his lawyers did not respond to emails or calls seeking comment.
In addition to Hernandez’s appeal, Steve Meisman, who placed third in the August primary and brought the eligibility challenge, has said he also plans to fight Barthle’s decision because she did not make him a replacement candidate. He argued that voters, not judges, should decide elections.
He said he thought Barthle “knocked it out of the park” in denying Hernandez’s request for a stay, though.
“This is the exact thing the appeals court should tell him,” Meisman said of the judge’s reasoning.
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