The ruling for now: Nader can't be on the state's presidential ballot. Time is against him as he plans an appeal.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published September 10, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - For now, Ralph Nader is off the Florida presidential ballot.
While he fights to get back on the ballot, time and the legal system are working against him.
The state Division of Elections on Thursday told elections supervisors across the state to list seven candidates for president on the Nov. 2 ballot. Nader was not one of them.
The ballot must go next week to overseas voters, including Florida soldiers fighting in Iraq.
Circuit Judge P. Kevin Davey ruled late Wednesday that Nader failed to meet legal qualifications as a minor party candidate. Davey said the Reform Party is not a party under state law, and that Nader did not collect enough valid voter signatures and was not nominated by a party's national convention.
He suggested his temporary order will likely become permanent. "I'm quite confident in the ruling. There's at least 15 reasons as to why they won't qualify, at least 15 that I counted up," Davey said. "If it was one or two, I'd be worried about it, but there's a whole lot of reasons."
State officials must give elections supervisors time to print overseas ballots to mail them by Sept. 18. Florida is under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice requiring it to mail overseas absentee ballots at least 45 days before the election.
State lawyers also told the judge that Monroe County must send its overseas ballots to the printer as early as today because Hurricane Ivan is forcing an evacuation of the Keys.
"It's essential that we move forward as quickly as possible," said Richard Perez, an attorney for Secretary of State Glenda Hood.
After several hours of off-and-on court proceedings Thursday involving a steadily expanding group of lawyers, Davey stood by his decision to keep Nader off the ballot. "I think I'm right," Davey said.
The judge could not hear arguments today, but agreed to do so next week, though Ivan and Rosh Hashana will shorten the court calendar.
Nader did not have an attorney at Wednesday's six-hour session and much of the time was used up by attorneys for four voters, the Democratic Party and the Ballot Project, an independent political group challenging Nader's candidacy in Florida.
"We believe due process was not observed," said Theresa Amato, Nader's national campaign chairman. "What the judge did was, in effect, turn the clock against the campaign."
Amato said she had to hunt for a local attorney to represent Nader. The lawyer she chose gave more ammunition to Democrats' allegations that Republicans are helping Nader.
Nader's Florida lawyer is Kenneth Sukhia, 51, a partner in the Fowler White firm in Tallahassee and a former federal prosecutor.
Sukhia was a member of the team of Republican lawyers who assisted President Bush in the 2000 recount, and was nominated by President Bush to a federal judgeship in 2001. His name was withdrawn because of Democratic opposition in the Senate.
Asked who suggested Sukhia, Amato said: "I don't know. I'll have to check." She said there's no "political litmus test for a lawyer."
On short notice, Sukhia showed up in court Thursday in blue jeans, and told the judge he needed more time to prepare.
Also appearing in court on behalf of Secretary of State Hood were attorneys Peter Antonacci and George Meros, two Tallahassee lawyers with Republican ties. Nader got about 92,000 votes in Florida in 2000, in an election in which George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 527 votes. Democrats say his presence on the ballot would siphon votes from John Kerry, and they filed a lawsuit challenging his qualifications.
"It's a farce," Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox said of Nader's minor-party credentials under Florida law. "We welcome anyone to the ballot as long as they adhere to Florida's election laws. If George Bush and John Kerry are both required to follow Florida statutes, so should Ralph Nader."
With Nader still arguing his case in the Florida courts, the list that was circulated to 67 counties Thursday carried a warning from the Division of Elections: "This is ongoing litigation and therefore the list of presidential candidates may change."
- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.