Florida judge rules against Tampa Bay-area congressional candidate in ballot fight

Jerry Torres 'should be decertified as a candidate,' Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled.

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A Leon County circuit judge Friday ruled that a Republican candidate is ineligible to run for a Tampa Bay-area congressional seat because he failed to properly qualify.

Judge John Cooper ruled against candidate Jerry Torres after holding a hearing Thursday and Friday. Cooper issued a verbal decision that Torres “should be decertified as a candidate,” said Mark Herron, an attorney for the plaintiffs who challenged Torres’ candidacy.

The Torres campaign will appeal, spokeswoman Angela Morabito said in an email. It was not immediately clear when Cooper will issue a written order.

The lawsuit, filed June 24, contended that Torres did not have qualifying paperwork properly notarized as required by law. Torres filed to run in an Aug. 23 Republican primary in Congressional District 14 in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as the GOP seeks to unseat U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., in November.

Plaintiffs in the case included the Florida Democratic Party and former state Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa.

“Defendant Torres has violated a valid and constitutional statute requiring a lawfully notarized candidate oath be submitted to the Division (of Elections) so as to appropriately qualify as a candidate,” attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in a court document filed Wednesday.

“Due to this violation, defendant Torres is not qualified to run. This is not an action seeking to disqualify defendant Torres, but instead to declare that due to the legal insufficiencies of his qualifying paperwork, at no point material has defendant Torres in fact been a duly qualified candidate.”

But in a document filed Friday, Torres’ attorneys wrote that the “presumption in Florida is that elections are to be decided by voters, not by political adversaries or by the courts.”

“There is no question that Mr. Torres is substantively qualified to stand for election,” Torres’ attorneys wrote. “He submitted his qualifying paperwork timely. There is no allegation or evidence that it was anything other than true, accurate and complete. He paid the filing fee in the amount and in the manner required. He signed the candidate oath.

"Because he was relying on professional campaign staff to handle these matters, he did not understand that the oath was anything other than part of an application or set of documents necessary to run for office. He did not understand that it needed to be notarized, and if he had he would have done so. His professional campaign staff made multiple attempts to get the oath notarized outside his presence. The secretary (of state) accepted his paper and did not inform him of any defect.”

The appeal of Cooper’s ruling would go to the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal. Torres’ attorneys went to the appellate court July 18 to try to halt the circuit-court hearing but were unsuccessful.

James Judge, another Republican candidate in the race, quickly issued a statement Friday after Cooper’s decision, saying “the court ruled fairly.”

“It is time to band together as Americans,” Judge said in the statement. “This November, I look forward to taking down Kathy Castor and the rest of the Democrat politicians who have caused sky-high fuel prices, runaway inflation, defunded our police, supported criminals, all while working tirelessly to brainwash our children and strip us of our Second Amendment rights. God bless our great nation!"

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