Lawsuit over Hillsborough congressional candidate's election paperwork moves forward

A candidate who ultimately hopes to unseat U.S. Representative Kathy Castor (D-Florida) is being challenged in court over the paperwork filed to appear on the primary ballots in the 2022 midterm elections

An appeals court cleared the way Monday for the lawsuit challenging whether Republican Jerry Torres properly qualified for the ballot.

His attorneys went to the 1st District Court of Appeal on July 18 seeking to halt a circuit court hearing in the lawsuit, which was filed by the Florida Democratic Party, former state Rep. Sean Shaw (D-Tampa), and others.

Torres argued that holding a final hearing on July 19, as had been scheduled by Circuit Judge John Cooper, would violate a court rule that spells out periods of time before such hearings can be held. The Tallahassee-based appeals court issued a stay July 18, putting the hearing on hold while the two sides filed further arguments.

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But a three-judge panel of the appeals court Monday turned down Torres’ arguments about the timing of the circuit-court hearing and lifted the stay. It did not explain its decision.

The underlying lawsuit, filed June 24, contends that Torres did not have qualifying paperwork properly notarized as required by law. Torres filed to run in the Aug. 23 Republican primary for Congressional District 14, where the GOP ultimately seeks to unseat U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor in the November election.

In arguments filed Friday at the appeals court, Torres’ attorneys pointed to political motivations of the plaintiffs.

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"First, plaintiffs should at least be candid that this case is political warfare by litigation," the document said. "They do not allege that Torres is disqualified for some substantive qualifications-law violation or that he made any false statement related to his qualifications to run. Their only beef is that Torres did not sign his oath in the physical presence of a notary."

But the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote Wednesday that Torres did not submit a "validly sworn federal candidate oath" to the state Division of Elections. They also argued that courts have the authority to expedite such cases before elections, contrary to Torres’ contention about the rule that sets out timeframes before hearings can be held.

"This patently absurd theory would create chaos in the world of elections, encourage fraudulent conduct by candidates, undue delay by their counsel, and effectively nullify the meaning and purpose behind the otherwise intentional and unambiguous statutory qualification requirements imposed on candidates by the Florida Legislature," the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote.

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Lawyers for Secretary of State Cord Byrd, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer and Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus filed documents at the appeals court that did not take positions on whether the circuit-court hearing should be delayed.

But they pointed to the short amount of time before the Aug. 23 primary.

"The supervisors have advised the lower court that a decision is needed before August 1, 2022, in order to program the voting machines to not tabulate votes for petitioner Torres (if plaintiffs prevail)," attorneys for the Secretary of State wrote Wednesday. "Otherwise, the vote tally will be discoverable and present a conflict with any order ‘removing’ the candidate, further confusing the electorate and undermining their confidence, which should be avoided."

FOX 13 News contributed to this report.