Tallahassee judge dismisses Pinellas lawsuit challenging state election law

The outcome means Pinellas commissioner Karen Seel will end her political career earlier than planned.
State Rep. Chris Latvala, left, originally filed to run in 2024 for Pinellas County Commission District 5, currently held by Karen Seel, right. A new state law allows him to run this year instead.
State Rep. Chris Latvala, left, originally filed to run in 2024 for Pinellas County Commission District 5, currently held by Karen Seel, right. A new state law allows him to run this year instead. [ Chris Latvala ]
Published May 24, 2022

A Tallahassee judge has dismissed Pinellas County’s lawsuit challenging a provision in Florida’s new election law that will require two county commissioners to run for their seats in November, halfway through their terms.

The outcome means a premature end for one of Pinellas County’s longest political careers.

District 5 Commissioner Karen Seel confirmed on Tuesday she will not run for her seat in November to complete the last two years of her four-year term.

Seel, a Republican, had previously announced she planned to step down in 2024, what was to be the end of her sixth term. Last year, State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, filed to run for her seat in 2024 when it would be an open race.

The law now allows him to run for District 5 in November, when he will be term-limited out of the Florida House.

Latvala has denied any involvement in pushing for the provision in the state law, which pertains to single-member commission districts and includes multiple exceptions so that Pinellas County was the only government affected. But Seel said “it’s pretty obvious” that this provision was crafted to push her out of her seat two years early so Latvala could run the year he was term-limited out of the House.

“I’ve really enjoyed serving people, and frankly I’m proud that all these years there wasn’t a whole lot of politics involved in my job,” Seel said. “Obviously the politics are coming to play now and I have a lot of distaste for that. That’s probably what’s factoring in my decision more than anything else.”

Latvala did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the other seat affected by the provision, District 7 Commissioner Rene Flowers has already filed paperwork to run for reelection. Single-member district commissioners Dave Eggers in District 4 and Kathleen Peters in District 6 were already up for reelection in November before the law’s passage. Commissioner Pat Gerard, who represents the at-large District 2, was also already up for reelection.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled Monday that the county’s lawsuit was barred by the public official standing doctrine, which prohibits local governments from challenging the constitutionality of state law, according to Christy Pemberton, managing assistant county attorney in Pinellas. An order had not been filed as of Tuesday afternoon.

The disputed provision requires county commissioners in single-member districts to run again for their seats following redistricting, which Pinellas completed in December following the once-in-a-decade release of U.S. Census numbers.

Commission chairperson Charlie Justice declined to comment Tuesday morning, stating he had not yet been briefed by County Attorney Jewel White and that next steps were “dependent on what the order says.”

In its complaint filed April 29, the county argued that the new provision was unconstitutional on two grounds: that its targeting of Pinellas, as opposed to the state as a whole, amounts to an illegal local bill, and that the commissioners’ terms would be illegally shortened because voters elected them to four-year terms in 2020.

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Attorney General Ashley Moody was dismissed from the case after her attorneys argued the attorney general was not a proper defendant. According to Pemberton, the judge on Monday also ruled that the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, who was not named in the lawsuit, was “an indispensable party.” The lawsuit was also filed against then-Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

On May 16, Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke sued the county questioning whether it could use public dollars to pay for its lawsuit against the state. The case was still open on Tuesday afternoon.