Judge kicks himself off felon voting-rights case after defendant's 'deeply troubling' legal maneuver

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A federal judge in Florida won’t be hearing a challenge to a restrictive Florida voting law because of a litigant’s choice of counsel.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee disqualified himself in a order this week, but he didn’t appear happy about it, report the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Tampa Bay Times.

The consolidated cases before Walker challenged a Florida law creating hurdles for felons who want to vote. Lawmakers passed the law after voters approved a state constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to people convicted of most felonies.

The Florida law added restrictions that require felons who want to vote to pay all fines, fees and financial penalties associated with their convictions.

Walker noted that one of the defendants, the Broward County supervisor of elections, had hired George Meros of Holland & Knight to represent him. Walker’s wife is a partner at Holland & Knight.

Walker said the “conduct at issue is deeply troubling.” In a footnote, he referred to a Florida ethics rule that says lawyers should not engage in conduct in connection with law practice that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

One of the cases challenging the law was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The case was filed in Gainesville, which assured the case would go before Walker, the Sun-Sentinel explains. Walker, an appointee of President Barack Obama, has consistently ruled against restrictive state election laws.

A spokesperson for the Broward elections supervisor told the Sun-Sentinel and the Tampa Bay Times that Holland & Knight was not hired as a mechanism to get Walker removed from the case. The elections supervisor, Pete Antonacci, has known and worked with Meros since 1997, said spokesperson Steve Vancore.

Meros is highly regarded, Vancore said, and “his street cred is off the charts.”

A litigant’s hiring of the Holland & Knight law firm also created problems for Walker in a past case.

Walker referred to that case when he said the federal appeals court that hears Florida cases had outlined a process to weed out frivolous recusal requests brought on by “unscrupulous shenanigans.”

The process involves referring the matter to a colleague who determines whether disqualification is required.

Walker said he followed that process in the past case, and the decision supported disqualification. So Walker said he would disqualify himself in the present case rather than asking another judge to decide.

Walker added that any concerns he has about the “deeply troubling” conduct is allayed “by confidence in my colleagues on this court to preside over the remainder of this case and judge it fairly and wisely.”

The case has been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

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