In misuse-of-power case, federal judge says Gov. Rick Scott “has not crossed the line” but “should be on notice.”

rick scott
Rick Scott. Screenshot

Recount logoAdvocacy groups and attorneys had hoped a federal judge would block Gov. Rick Scott from interfering in the recount process in the pivotal U.S. Senate race, but that didn’t happen, at least for now.

U.S. District Court Mark Walker decided not to take action in a misuse-of-power lawsuit, saying in an order that Scott “has not crossed the line” in words and actions that would require a formal recusal.

(The governor has already said he will not sit on the the Elections Canvassing Commission that certifies officials returns from the general election.)

“He has not suspended any election official. He has not interfered with the recount so far. He has even recused himself from the Elections Canvassing Commission,” Walker said. “All plaintiffs have are statements of a candidate exceedingly close to a United States Senate seat. Imprudent they may be—unconstitutional they are not.”

With Scott and Democrat U.S. Senator Bill Nelson in a tight race, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida filed a federal lawsuit earlier this week, alleging that Scott’s actions as a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat, had “evinced a misuse of his official power to advance his candidacy.”

The lawsuit states that Scott continued to “use his authority as governor to seek to influence the outcome of the election in his favor, including…threatening and intimidating election workers by making unfounded allegations of fraud against election officials and political opponents and credibly threatening to deploy state law enforcement agents to investigate them.”

But Judge Walker said:

“This Court recognizes the demarcation between typical campaign-trail puffery and the words and actions of a public official acting in an official capacity. While campaign-trail rhetoric is increasingly bombastic, imprudent, and not necessarily rooted in objective facts, there is a critical line between campaign rhetoric and that rhetoric transforming into state action that requires judicially imposed recusal.

When a public official acting in his official capacity crosses that line, he ventures into a thicket of actual or potential bias. Then, constitutional alarm bells ring. Here, Scott has toed the line between imprudent campaign-trail rhetoric and problematic state action. But he has not crossed the line.”

Walker added: “The Constitution requires recusal from public officials when there is a serious, objective risk of bias. The candidate’s statements offered here, though haphazard and reckless, do not rise to that level. “

At the same time, the judge said, “Scott should be on notice. Florida is entering its first-ever manual recount in which Scott is an interested party with ample power to meddle in the process. Scott’s past statements occurred primarily when he wore his candidate hat.” And Scott is required “to remain impartial in his gubernatorial capacity.”

Walker added that the case is not closed “and future actions could demand further consideration.”

 

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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