Judge dismisses challenge to state attorney candidate

Within hours, lawyer appeals decision to dismiss

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A judge on Friday granted a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging a write-in candidate in the race for top prosecutor for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of voters claimed Kenny Leigh's candidacy is "a sham" and he was only running to force the Aug. 30 primary to be limited to Republican voters -- a move that would leaves hundreds of thousands of Democratic and Independent voters unable to vote.

Within hours, attorney Bill Sheppard, who filed the lawsuit, appealed the judge's ruling to the First District Court of Appeals.

"Sure you're disappointed, but the fight has just begun," Sheppard told News4Jax.

In dismissing the legal challenge, Judge Richard Townsend added that the court did not find that the complaint was frivolous.

"To the contrary, this Court finds that the Plaintiffs filed the Complaint in good faith," Townsend wrote. "The Plaintiffs have a very compelling argument that a write-in candidate who has no intention of winning the office of State Attorney, and whose name will not appear on the ballot, is not 'opposition' with the meaning of the UPA  (Universal Primary Amendment). Furthermore, it is inconceivable that the framers of the UPA intended to exclude a substantial majority of registered voters from the process of the election of a State Attorney. ... Florida law as it currently exists does not offer the Plaintiffs the relief they seek."

COURT DOCUMENT: Order granting defendant's motion to dismiss

Townsend added it's not the role of the court to determine the viability of a candidate, that's for voters. He said the court "champions a strong public policy against judicial interference in the democratic process of elections." 

A spokesperson for Kenny Leigh told News4Jax: "We're very happy with the result. It should have been that way." 

Isaiah Rumlin, president of the NAACP, said he was "very disappointed" by the ruling.

"More than 400,000 voters are being disenfranchised. We need Kenny Leigh to drop out," Rumlin said.

North Regional Director of New Florida Majority, Moné Holder, expressed her discontent for the ruling in a statement released Saturday. 

"This decision is not unprecedented," Holder said. "The city of Jacksonville has a history of voter suppression. This decision by Judge Townsend cements another sad chapter in the disgraceful legacy of black disenfranchisement."  

Republican State Attorney Angela Corey is running for re-election, and is facing Republican primary opposition from two former employees, Wesley White and Melissa Nelson.

Leigh, a local attorney, filed to run as a write-in candidate, closing that primary to only registered Republicans, which some said gives Corey, the incumbent, an advantage.

Corey's campaign manager, who has since resigned, admitted to helping Leigh -- an outspoken supporter and donor to Corey's campaign -- file papers with state election officials. 

Leigh, an attorney himself, said his candidacy was perfectly legal and told the court the lawsuit had no merit.

Corey also called Leigh's candidacy legal, saying if any non-Republican wants to vote in the race, they simply have to switch their party affiliation.

News4Jax checked with the three elections offices in the judicial circuit and found that 1,543 voters have re-registered as Republicans since June 1. People have until Aug 1. to register to vote or change their affiliation.

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