Florida Democrats' lawsuit is tossed

A judge rules against a bid to force the DNC to seat state delegates to the party's convention.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writer
Published December 6, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- Democratic National Committee 2, Florida 0.

Florida Democrats lost another effort on Wednesday to make Florida's Democratic primary more meaningful on Jan. 29.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle threw out a lawsuit that aimed to force the national party to seat Florida delegates at the national convention and command presidential candidates to campaign in Florida.

"We're pleased that the court respected the necessity of the Democratic National Committee to enforce its rules about the selection of delegates to the convention and to treat all of the state Democratic parties across the country in a fair and consistent and equitable way," said Joe Sandler, the DNC's attorney.

The lawsuit was filed by Sen. Bill Nelson, Rep. Alcee Hastings and Rep. Corrine Brown, among other Democrats, against the Democratic National Committee and its chairman, Howard Dean.

The goal of the suit was to resolve a dispute between the state and national parties that originated when Florida moved its presidential primary day to Jan. 29, earlier than national party rules permitted. The DNC responded by stripping Florida of its delegates to the national convention, which led the Democratic candidates to boycott campaigning in Florida for the primary. (They still come to Florida to raise money.)

Without delegates at stake, Florida Democrats can vote on Jan. 29 but the results won't count toward determining the party's nominee for president. Nelson's attorney, Kendall Coffey, said he doesn't expect to appeal.

Coffey argued during the court hearing that the national party has disenfranchised Florida Democrats, violating the "rights of voters and having every vote count."

"Democratic voters of Florida will not have an opportunity to participate in one of the most important elections in many years," Coffey said.

Judge Hinkle was not convinced. He ruled that forcing the national party to break its own primary schedule rules by seating Florida delegates would violate the party's First Amendment right to assemble.

"There can be a schedule, there need not be a free-for-all and the entity that can set the schedule is the national party," said Hinkle while pronouncing his ruling. "Florida has to comply with the same rules and procedures as everybody else and does not get to have its own way.

Hinkle did leave the door open for Nelson to file a lawsuit against the secretary of state to challenge the constitutionality of moving up Florida's primary. Coffey said Nelson was more likely to "take this battle to the halls of Congress."

A federal judge in Tampa had already dismissed another lawsuit filed by Hillsborough Democrat and political consultant Victor DiMaio against the state and national Democratic parties. A third lawsuit filed by Democratic state committeeman Jon Ausman of Tallahassee against the state in Leon County Circuit Court seeks to move the primary date back to its original March date.