Elections

Who is the federal judge at the center of the legal battle over the Florida recount?

How does an election recount work?

Florida law requires an automatic recount in a race in which the difference in vote totals is half a percent or less. The law requires a manual recount if the difference in the vote totals is 1/4 of a percent or less.
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Florida law requires an automatic recount in a race in which the difference in vote totals is half a percent or less. The law requires a manual recount if the difference in the vote totals is 1/4 of a percent or less.

Federal Judge Mark Walker — perhaps best known for thwarting Gov. Rick Scott’s agenda against the restoration of felons’ voting rights — is suddenly the most powerful person in Florida and will soon decide whether to suspend the deadlines for completing recounts of millions of ballots in three major state races.

Walker, nominated by former President Barack Obama in 2012, has been assigned federal lawsuits filed this week in Tallahassee that aim to extend fast-approaching deadlines until all 67 Florida counties complete their machine and manual recounts.

A couple of other suits assigned to Walker seek to allow the tabulation of certain mail-in ballots with mismatching voter signatures and other absentees that were not counted because they arrived late at elections offices statewide. And another suit seeks to remove Scott as a member of the state board that ultimately certifies the results of the general election.

On Wednesday morning, in a conference call with lawyers involved in one case, Walker made a “Star Trek” analogy while saying he had to resolve seven election-related lawsuits in a matter of days. “I feel a little like Captain Kirk in the episode where the Tribbles started multiplying,” Walker said.

Whatever Walker decides, his ruling on whether to suspend the 3 p.m. Thursday deadline for machine recounts and the noon Sunday deadline for manual recounts will undoubtedly rock Florida’s political universe — with the final results required to be certified by the state on Tuesday. The race for U.S. Senate between Scott, the GOP governor, and Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democrat, is at stake with only about 12,500 votes separating them — along with races for state agriculture commissioner and governor.

Scott’s Senate campaign is strongly opposed to extending the recount deadlines or tabulating additional mail-in votes, with the governor accusing the Democrats of trying to steal the election. Meeting those recount deadlines has been a serious problem in vote-rich Broward and Palm Beach counties, which lean heavily Democratic.

Walker and Scott have crossed paths before during their tenures as judge and governor. After Hurricane Matthew tore through Northeast Florida in 2016 and forced election offices to close, the judge sided with Democrats and extended a voter registration deadline by one day over Scott’s objections that the judge called “wholly irrational.”

Walker, a “Double Gator” who graduated top in his class from the University of Florida and magna cum laude from its law school, was thrust into the public spotlight in February over Florida’s ban on voting rights for felons. The judge invalidated Florida’s scheme as arbitrary and discriminatory, leading to a statewide vote on Nov. 6 to restore those rights in Florida’s constitution.

In his ruling, Walker called Scott’s logic on voting rights “nonsensical.” He used an assertion Scott made at one clemency board meeting — “We can do whatever we want” — to support his premise that Florida’s system is unconstitutionally arbitrary.

He made passing references to fine wine, Space Mountain and a favorite team, the Florida Gators, the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reported.

“A state cannot re-enfranchise only those felons who are more than six-feet tall, who are blue-eyed, who were born in August, who root for the Florida Gators or who call heads during a coin flip,” Walker wrote.

Read Mark Walker’s decision here

Walker also has presided over a case in which he backed the Florida House’s use of subpoena power in an investigation of the state’s tourism marketing arm, Visit Florida, and a prominent vendor, Pat Roberts.

Peering down from the bench in black-rimmed Buddy Holly-style glasses, Walker interrupted lawyers in mid-sentence and called the House’s subpoena power a “1,000-pound gorilla,” according to the Herald/Times.

He made a dated pop music reference in discussing the separation of powers between the courts and the Legislature: “To quote MC Hammer, Judge, you can’t touch that.”

Walker, 51, grew up in Winter Garden in a modest middle-class family. His mom was a homemaker and his dad managed a Winn-Dixie, where a teenage Walker bagged groceries.

His wife, Karen, is a partner at Holland & Knight, long one of the state’s most prominent law firms.

Walker clerked for two leading judges, former Chief Justice Stephen Grimes of the Florida Supreme Court and U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle. Those clerkships helped to convince him that he wanted to be a judge.

“I knew immediately this is ultimately what I wanted to do,” Walker told the Tallahassee Democrat in 2009. “Through them, you can see how important good judges are to the system.”

After working in private practice and as a public defender, he ran unopposed for circuit judge in Tallahassee in 2008. He wasn’t there long.

Walker was recommended to the federal bench in 2012 by both of Florida’s U.S. senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Nelson, and was confirmed, 94-0, at a time when many of President Obama’s appointments were being blocked by Republicans.

“He is just the stereotypical person who you would hope would be on the bench,” Tallahassee lawyer Kelly Overstreet Johnson, a former Florida Bar president, told the Herald/Times. “No agenda. Just very open-minded.”

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporters Steve Bousquet, Lawrence Mower and Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.

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