Broward County

Former Broward elections chief Brenda Snipes fights ouster in federal court

Lawyers for former Broward elections chief Brenda Snipes argued in federal court Monday that the embattled supervisor should be reinstated to her position after she was suspended by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott in November, alleging that her due process rights were violated because the Senate declined to review her case and that the law under which she was suspended is unconstitutional.

Scott and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who are named in the suit, have countered that a resignation letter Snipes submitted, then rescinded, was irrevocable by that point and that her case is moot.

But in a two-hour hearing in federal court, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker pressed both sides on what “due process” entailed in Snipes’ case, as well as what — if any — remedy should be provided by the court.

“Due process contemplates an opportunity to be heard,” noted Walker, questioning lawyers for Scott’s office and the Senate whether that definition was satisfied. “What’s the process the law would require?”

Snipes traveled to Tallahassee to appear in court with her lawyers, though she remained silent. Her lawyers declined to comment after the hearing.

Snipes, who was appointed to her post by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 and subsequently reelected, was widely criticized for her handling of those November midterms as the heavily Democratic county struggled to count thousands of ballots in the races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner. Scott, who prevailed narrowly in his race against former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, publicly criticized Snipes as the recounts were occurring. Scott’s campaign sued Snipes over voter records as the recounts were ongoing.

Snipes announced shortly after the recounts were completed that she would resign effective Jan. 4, rather than serving out the two-year remainder of her term. But when Scott suspended her from office at the end of November — citing misfeasance, incompetence and neglect of duty in an executive order — Snipes said in a press conference she was taking back her resignation and filed suit.

Scott, as he suspended Snipes, appointed his former general counsel, Peter Antonacci — who previously led Florida’s economic development agency and had no prior elections experience — to replace her.

When she filed her lawsuit against Scott and Galvano in December, Snipes alleged that her suspension was “politically motivated” and that the state Senate had violated her right to due process when it declined to hold a hearing on her suspension.

“Snipes seeks to fight for her reputation and stand up against the embarrassment that has been caused by Governor Scott’s unnecessary and malicious suspension,” the lawsuit said. “There are false allegations contained within the executive order and Snipes has never had a proper forum to state her position.”

“In this case, the suspended public official’s loss of pay or the orchestrated shattering of her reputation was without due process of law,” the lawsuit added.

Senate lawyers, citing a legal review done by its attorneys, contended that it was too late for Snipes to take back her resignation and that there was insufficient time to investigate before that resignation went into effect. The state constitution tasks the Senate with reviewing the cases of county officials suspended by the governor.

“This decision in no way reflects on Dr. Snipes, the governor, or their actions,” Galvano wrote at the time. “The decision merely reflects that no timely action can be taken by the Senate. Nothing precludes Dr. Snipes from seeking a judicial determination of any rights she may have related to the Office of Broward County Supervisor of Elections.”

A spokesman for Scott also criticized the lawsuit when it was filed, calling it “a desperate move from someone who has already officially submitted her resignation.”

“This is simply an attempt by Ms. Snipes to rewrite the history of her failed leadership,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said.

In court Monday, Walker, who presided over a flurry of recount-related lawsuits filed after the contentious 2018 elections, pressed Snipes’ lawyers on what the court could order if it decided to rule she was afforded insufficient due process. He also questioned representatives of the state on whether or not Snipes’ other avenues entailed a sufficient opportunity to be heard.

Jeremiah Hawkes, one of the lawyers for the Senate, contended that the Senate’s authority was limited because Snipes’ resignation became permanent when Scott appointed her replacement.

“She has a remedy in the state courts,” he said, adding that the chamber had legislative immunity. “This kind of challenge should not be brought against the Senate in this form.”

Scott lawyer Daniel Nordby also contended Snipes had other avenues to be heard, including a letter to Scott or his successor Ron DeSantis, who will be inaugurated Tuesday.

But Michelle Austin Pamies, one of Snipes’ attorneys, argued that due process “is known as an opportunity to be heard, and the opportunity has to be provided by the state, the actor.”

“At least there was always the possibility the Senate would look at it” to determine if the executive order’s allegations were accurate, she added. After the Senate declined to review the suspension, “there is no such opportunity.”

Walker also asked, rhetorically, if any other supervisors of elections were disciplined or suspended, referencing but not explicitly naming Bay County supervisor Mark Andersen, who accepted some domestically faxed ballots in violation of an executive order from Scott.

Burnadette Norris-Weeks, another Snipes attorney, said no. “We believe this was a targeted action on the part of the governor.”

Snipes’ suit, in addition to requesting reinstatement as Broward’s elections chief, also asks for “all accrued back pay that has been withheld” since the date of her suspension.

Walker said he expected to make a ruling shortly but did not provide a date.

Elizabeth Koh is a state government reporter in the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times’ shared Tallahassee bureau, where she covers the Florida Legislature with a focus on health care politics and policy. A Brown University graduate, she covered local politics for the Washington Post and national politics for the Dallas Morning News’ D.C. bureau before joining the Herald in 2017.