Pointing to a denial of due process, a federal judge Wednesday ordered Gov. Ron DeSantis to give former Broward County elections chief Brenda Snipes the opportunity to tell her side of the story after former Gov. Rick Scott stripped her of the job.
Snipes, a Democrat appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and subsequently re-elected four times, announced Nov. 18 she would step down as supervisor, effective Jan. 4, after a turbulent election.
But on Nov. 30, Scott issued an executive order suspending Snipes and replacing her with his longtime ally, Pete Antonacci. The order cited widespread problems during the 2018 elections and accused Snipes of demonstrating “misfeasance, incompetence, and neglect of duty.”
The day after the executive order, Snipes held a news conference and rescinded her resignation. Seeking to regain her job, Snipes later filed a federal lawsuit against Scott and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who heard arguments in the case Monday, ruled Wednesday that Snipes had been denied due process.
“The issue here is whether Scott could suspend and publicly vilify a constitutional officer without a meaningful opportunity for her to be heard,” Walker wrote in a 12-page ruling.
Walker found that Snipes could not withdraw her resignation after her replacement had been appointed and sworn in because it was “an unconditional resignation.”
“But rather than accept the resignation quietly and avoid trampling on Snipes’ due process rights, Scott suspended Snipes and vilified her without giving her a meaningful opportunity to be heard,” Walker, who has frequently ruled against the state in election matters, scolded.
While the Senate has state constitutional authority to remove or reinstate suspended officials, Galvano said the Senate was unable to take up her case because of timing. In Wednesday’s ruling, Walker agreed that the Senate was not at fault.
In a memo to senators, Galvano noted that Walker’s ruling “affirms the Senate’s position that the unconditional resignation of Dr. Snipes was valid and cannot be rescinded; therefore, the Senate could not have a timely hearing.”
But Walker found Snipes has met legal requirements for plaintiffs when “reputational damage is sustained in connection with a termination of employment.”
Scott’s executive order “contains some falsehoods of a stigmatizing nature,” the judge found, including a statement that erroneously blamed Snipes for a mishap related to a vendor’s mistake.
“In his executive order, Scott also accused Snipes of ‘misfeasance, incompetence and neglect of duty,’ catch-all terms so broad and vague as to be meaningless,” Walker wrote.
While the due process clause “does not prohibit a state from depriving a person of liberty,” there “must be some process --- notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard,” he added, finding that Snipes “is likely to prevail on the merits because she was denied due process entirely.”
Snipes “has had and will have zero opportunity to tell her side of the story in any official forum,” Walker wrote.
The judge also chided Scott’s lawyers for suggesting Monday that Snipes could write letters or speak to the media to defend herself.
“This is not a meaningful opportunity to be heard. On the contrary, the excessive airing of grievances --- whether real or imagined --- across news outlets and social media has led in recent years to the degradation of public discourse,” Walker admonished.
Walker delivered a stinging rebuke to Scott, whose administration he frequently excoriated in rulings in other cases. DeSantis on Tuesday replaced Scott, who was sworn into the U.S. Senate.
“The law can be unclear at times. Statutes can be ambiguous; case law can meander, diverge or swerve from common sense. Judges face murky legal issues every day. Today is not one of those days. Procedural due process is not ambiguous. Flagrantly disregarding plaintiff’s constitutional rights fits into an unfortunate rhythm for Scott. But the ease and comfort Scott has in overlooking plaintiff’s due process rights does (not) make it legally permissible,” Walker wrote.
Walker also noted that DeSantis “has been accused of no wrongdoing but must, by law, inherit what his predecessor has left him.”
Walker gave DeSantis until Jan. 31 to provide Snipes notice, which “must involve specific allegations” and “must identify what specific conduct” phrases like “misfeasance” and “incompetence” refer to, if they are used.
And Walker gave DeSantis until March 31 to provide Snipes a “meaningful opportunity to be heard,” which means “an opportunity to present evidence to the governor, either in writing or through witnesses,” and an opportunity to present arguments to the governor, either orally or in writing.
Walker made clear his order does not reinstate Snipes to office and that he is not aware “of any legal principle demanding such a remedy.”
“This court emphasizes that it is not requiring a specific outcome,” he wrote. “It is merely requiring meaningful process --- as the Constitution demands.”