Former judge in northeast Florida barred from election

A former northeast Florida judge who was suspended from practicing law is barred from running for a judgeship this year, a Leon County district judge ruled Wednesday.

Judge J. Lee Marsh held a 30-minute hearing before siding with attorneys for Rose Marie Preddy, a 7th Circuit judge who filed a lawsuit challenging Scott DuPont's candidacy.

The 7th district consists of the counties of St. Johns, Putnam, Flagler and Volusia.

DuPont is a former district judge who was suspended from the practice of law by the Florida Supreme Court in October 2019 and reinstated in June 2020.

He was suspended from the practice of law after the Supreme Court removed him from his position as a district judge in 2018 for inappropriate conduct. The dismissal came after an investigation that focused, among other things, on allegations that DuPont spread false information about his 2016 election opponent.

Daniel Nordby, an attorney representing Preddy, argued Wednesday that DuPont's suspension means he does not meet a constitutional requirement to run this year. That requirement states that a lawyer is ineligible for the office of district judge “unless the person is and has been a member of the Florida Bar for the past five years.”

The judge's new term begins in January, less than five years after DuPont was reinstated.

Citing a 2009 Supreme Court opinion, Nordby said the justices found that “the usual and ordinary meaning of the term 'member' of the Florida Bar refers to a member authorized to practice law and does not include suspended attorneys.”

However, Anthony Sabatini, a former state representative who represents DuPont, argued that DuPont is allowed to run because he remained a member of the Florida Bar during his suspension. Sabatini used a sports analogy to make the argument.

“When people think of suspension, they don't think of permanent exclusion from the team. … They would have said … you can't play a few games, just like a lawyer, figuratively speaking, can't play a few games,” Sabatini said. “When you become a member of the bar, you have not been expelled. You are still a member of the bar, even if you cannot practice law at that time.”

Marsh took a 30-minute break before verbally announcing the decision that DuPont could not run.

The judge referred to the five-year requirement for candidates for district judge and addressed a constitutional requirement that candidates for district judge in districts with fewer than 40,000 residents be a “good” member of the bar.

“That's why this court has to address the difference between the phrase 'member of the Florida Bar' and 'member in good standing.' That's going to be problematic,” Marsh said.

Marsh rejected Sabatini's arguments that the “good standing” requirement for district judges did not apply to other judicial positions. He said it made no sense that district judges should be held to stricter standards than Supreme Court justices.

The court “must look for a reasonable interpretation of the words that will have meaning both to members of the Florida Bar and to members in good standing of the Florida Bar,” Marsh said.

“This court cannot conceive of a Constitution that would allow someone who is not qualified to practice to be admitted to the highest court in the state but not to our rural district courts. That makes no sense. And there is no other provision, none cited by defendant DuPont … that does not lead to this bizarre result,” he added.

Marsh ruled in January that DuPont was “constitutionally ineligible for the office of judge.”

“The court takes no position on whether or not voters would choose Mr. DuPont as their judge in a future election,” Marsh said.

In addition, Marsh ordered state and local election officials not to approve DuPont as a candidate or count ballots with his name on them.

“The Court recognizes the momentous event that removing a person from the ballot rolls entails. The Court takes no pleasure in this, but ultimately, in order for democracies to function properly, they must obey the laws and abide by the constraints imposed on them by the Constitution,” Marsh concluded.

Speaking to the Florida News Service after the hearing, Sabatini said it was “very likely” that DuPont would appeal the ruling.

“It's very difficult because obviously there's already the appeal decision on that, but we'll see,” he said, referring to an appeals court ruling in a case involving a prosecutor candidate who was barred from running because of a suspension. “It depends on what (DuPont) wants to do. He's a judge, you know, or was a judge.”

Preddy was appointed judge by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year. She filed the suit in April, after a waiting period in which she and DuPont filed paperwork with the state Board of Elections and became eligible candidates for the seat. They are the only candidates who qualified.

Anna Harden

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