Gun rights group calls for new judge in FSU lawsuit

Published June 8, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — A gun-rights group wants a new hearing, with a new judge, in a lawsuit over firearm-related information in Florida State University's 2015 football "game day" guide.

The group Florida Carry argues in court documents that Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who rejected the lawsuit last month, has been a perennial contributor to the university.

The university countered this week by saying that Florida Carry, which also wants a rehearing on an issue dealing with stun guns, had eight months to ask for the disqualification of Dodson.

Florida Carry, seeking to vacate Dodson's May 17 ruling in favor of the university, pointed to the judge being listed on FSU's Robert M. Strozier Society Honor Roll of Donors for having given from $10,000 to $99,999 to the school.

"Plaintiffs fear that Judge Dodson's significant financial investment over a period of at least 16 consecutive years indicates a bias in favor of defendants," Florida Carry said in a May 27 motion.

Florida Carry and Bekah Hargrove, executive director of Florida Students for Concealed Carry, filed the lawsuit in September because the FSU football "Game Day Plan 2015," a 28-page information packet sent out by campus police, advised visitors that firearms can't be stored in vehicles parked on campus.

Florida Carry and Hargrove argued the guide failed to follow a 2013 ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal that said the University of North Florida cannot prevent firearms from being stowed in cars.

The "game day" guide provides general information on parking, traffic patterns, tailgating, concessions and other items such as banners, drones and smoking. After the lawsuit was filed, the university updated the guide and acknowledged the information hadn't been changed earlier to reflect the 2013 ruling.

The school also said that while the out-of-date language existed, nobody had been cited for having firearms or weapons legally secured in vehicles. The university later argued it had "corrected the erroneous language" and that the lawsuit was moot.

Dodson agreed with the university in his ruling.

Dodson, a 1976 graduate of FSU's College of Law, is listed on the school's "Consecutive Giving Honor Roll" for donating the past "16 to 20 years," according to the FSU Foundation website.

Barry Richard, the attorney representing FSU and university President John Thrasher, countered in a court document that Florida Carry's request is "untimely" and that such contributions shouldn't be sufficient grounds for disqualification. Richard noted that the state Supreme Court has ruled judges can't be dismissed from cases based on political contributions they receive.

"It stands to reason that if a political contribution to a trial judge is not sufficient to require disqualification, a charitable or educational donation from a trial judge would not be sufficient grounds for disqualification," Richard wrote.

As for the timing of the disqualification request, Richard contended that Florida Carry could have made the argument any time after filing the lawsuit.

"The only excuse offered by the plaintiffs for their delay is that they discovered the donations on May 17, 2016, the day the summary judgment order was issued," Richard wrote. "Courts have consistently rejected the excuse of non-discovery when the information had been publicly available to the movant."

In a separate motion, Florida Carry also seeks rehearing on an issue dealing with stun guns on university property.

Florida Carry argued that students with concealed-weapons licenses are allow to possess stun guns and other non-lethal electric devices for defensive purposes as long as the weapons don't fire darts or projectiles.

Dodson ruled that the school's Student Code of Conduct is correct to list stun guns and other non-lethal electric weapons as being prohibited on campus.