Here's a story that I did on Thursday for News Service of Florida:
A contentious Broward County judicial election has spawned a lawsuit pitting that county's top election official against the state panel charged with regulating elections.
Brenda Snipes, the Broward County Supervisor of Elections, has asked a Leon County judge to block an ongoing investigation by the Florida Elections Commission. The commission overruled its own staff and gave the green-light to investigate a complaint filed against Snipes by Mardi Levey Cohen, who lost a bid for Broward County circuit court last November.
But Snipes' lawsuit - which was filed in late April - contends that the commission has no legal authority to proceed with an investigation.
"We want to ask the court to prevent any further movement on the matter,'' said Burnadette Norris-Weeks, a Fort Lauderdale attorney representing Snipes.
Jon Glogau, a lawyer representing Attorney General Bill McCollum, has asked that the lawsuit be dismissed. Glogau's two page-filing contends that a Leon County court lacks jurisdiction over the elections commission and that Snipes cannot file a lawsuit yet because she has "failed to exhaust administrative remedies.''
Cohen filed her complaint against Snipes last December following a tumultuous election. She came in second during a three-candidate primary in August, only to have the incumbent judge - who came in third - challenge whether Cohen was qualified because she had used her maiden name on the ballot.
A retired Miami-Dade judge ruled that Cohen's name should be stricken from the ballot and replaced with the name of incumbent judge Pedro Dijols. But that ruling was appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal which reinstated Cohen on the ballot. Snipes was instructed to give a notice to voters about the change if it was too late to change ballots for the November election.
But Cohen contends that Snipes broke state election laws by not posting notices in all the precincts so voters would know that a vote for Dijols was in fact a vote for Cohen.
Barbara Linthicum, the executive director of the Florida Elections Commission at the time, dismissed Cohen's complaint, saying it lacked legal sufficiency. Linthicum said there was no evidence that Snipes had "willfully neglected her duty or corruptly failed to perform her duty" as required under Florida law.
The commission, however, overruled Linthicum during a testy exchange at a confidential February meeting. The transcript from the meeting, which was included in the Leon County court filing, shows that while Linthicum conceded that some notices were not handed out she argued it didn't merit further investigation.
Jorge Cruz-Bustillo, an attorney and chairman of the commission, compared the Snipes case to that of Miriam Oliphant, the embattled previous Broward County supervisor who was removed from office by Gov. Jeb Bush and replaced with Snipes.
According to the transcript, Cruz-Bustillo argued during the closed-door hearing that since the commission took action against Oliphant - whose elections were marred by precinct places failing to open on time - then it should at least investigate the case against Snipes.
Linthicum "took offense" at comparing Snipes to Oliphant, saying that Oliphant had failed to follow her duties under the law, as opposed to a court order. Cruz-Bustillo shot back that a court order should be considered part of the same duty as the law.
Cohen, for her part, said during the hearing that she wants the commission to investigate Snipes so that people will know the election "wasn't done right.'' Cohen also has a separate motion pending in Broward County that is asking a judge to find Snipes in contempt of court and that Broward County reimburse her filing fees and other expenses. That motion is expected to be taken up next week.
Cohen said Wednesday that confidentiality laws prohibit her from discussing her actual complaint. She did say, however, that she probably had grounds to contest the election but that it would have cost taxpayers extra to hold a special election. But what happened was unfair, she said.
"If someone goes out to vote and they don't know a vote for one guy is actually a vote for another, how's that a fair election?'' said Cohen. "It's un-American.''