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Appeals court will decide if former state Department of Health employee can run for Congress

Former Florida data scientist Rebekah Jones turned herself in to authorities Sunday night. She accuses the state of retaliating against her for speaking out about its COVID-19 policies and officials' decisions related to the pandemic.
Courtesy Rebekah Jones
Former Florida data scientist Rebekah Jones turned herself in to authorities Sunday night. She accuses the state of retaliating against her for speaking out about its COVID-19 policies and officials' decisions related to the pandemic.

An appeals court Friday put on hold a circuit judge’s ruling that would block Democrat Rebekah Jones from running for a Northwest Florida congressional seat.

The 1st District Court of Appeal issued a two-sentence order granting Jones’ request for a stay of a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper that said she was ineligible to run in Congressional District 1.

The stay effectively means that Jones can remain a candidate while the Tallahassee-based appeals court considers whether she is eligible. The order did not give a detailed explanation but said Cooper’s decision disqualifying Jones “for nomination for election to the United States House of Representatives from Florida’s 1st Congressional District in the 2022 election cycle is stayed pending further order of this (appeals) court.”

READ MORE: Report finds Rebekah Jones' claims of COVID-19 manipulation to be unsubstantiated and unfounded

Jones, a former state Department of Health employee who drew widespread attention when she alleged Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration manipulated COVID-19 data, has battled Peggy Schiller in the Democratic primary in the district in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties.

Democrats are trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in the heavily Republican district.

Schiller and a voter filed a lawsuit in July contending that Jones was ineligible to run because she had not met a legal requirement of being a registered Democrat for 365 days before qualifying.

Cooper held a hearing last week and entered a written ruling Monday that agreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments. He also denied a request by Jones for a stay while an appeal played out.

“This court is keenly aware and sensitive to the right of citizens to choose their representatives and that the involvement by the court in the democratic process is an action to be taken only after serious and thoughtful reflection,” Cooper wrote in the ruling. “While it provides this court no pleasure in removing a candidate from the ballot, and the court makes no judgment on the wisdom of the statute, the statute is clear, unambiguous and constitutional.”

But Jones’ attorney, Benedict Kuehne, filed a motion Thursday at the appeals court seeking a stay of Cooper’s ruling, The primary election is Aug. 23, with ballots already being cast.

“(Absent) a stay pending appellate review, Ms. Jones and the voters of Congressional District 1 are denied their constitutional right to exercise their election prerogative to vote for the candidate of their choice,” Kuehne wrote. “An immediate stay and direction to allow the voting for both primary candidates for Congressional District 1 to continue unabated is essential to prevent these harms, preserve the status quo right to vote and seek public office and ensure that Ms. Jones can have meaningful relief if this court reverses the final judgment (by Cooper).”

But J.C. Planas, an attorney for the plaintiffs, filed a response Thursday that said the request for a stay should be denied because Jones “does not have a likelihood of success on the merits” of the question of her eligibility.

“The removal of Jones from the ballot is not a hyper technical interpretation of a statute. … Rather, the trial court found that Jones was not a registered member of the Democratic Party for 365 days prior to qualifying, thus she failed to meet the clear requirements of the statute and was not qualified to run for U.S. Congress as a member of the Democratic Party,” Planas wrote.

Before granting the stay, the appeals court issued an order Thursday putting the underlying appeal about Jones’ eligibility on a fast track.