Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the court’s ruling.
A federal judge on Thursday appears to have exposed his personal bias against the DeSantis Administration during a hearing early Thursday, when his comments openly criticized the COVID-19 policy related decisions of Governor Ron DeSantis. The subject of the hearing was focused on a request for a voter registration deadline extension, and not on the state’s handling of coronavirus.
The comments, from U.S. District Court Chief Judge Mark Walker, riled legal observers who say the judge’s statements could be taken as evidence of a lack of objectivity. Various media reports noted the judge’s behavior as well, saying he “hammered” state officials, that he “bristled” at their arguments, that he became “incensed,” that he “snapped” at them, and that state officials “drew his ire.” There were no such descriptions when Walker was addressing the plaintiffs.
At one point late in the hearing, Walker even appeared to recognize he may have gone overboard.
“The fact that I ask tough questions doesn’t necessarily mean what’s going to happen in the case,” he said.
It’s not clear if attorneys for the DeSantis administration, or more specifically, the Department of State, plan to seek a recusal in the case. One legal expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested it might be appropriate in this case. A message seeking comment from the governor’s office was not immediately returned late Thursday.
The snarky hearing Thursday morning came after a surge of internet traffic bogged down the state’s voter registration website hours before the Monday deadline. In response, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a DeSantis appointee, extended the deadline until 7pm Tuesday. But for some, that wasn’t enough. A coalition of liberal and civil rights groups, including the progressive New Florida Majority and The Advancement Project National Office, filed a lawsuit seeking even more time to register voters.
During Thursday’s hearing, Mohammad Jazil, an attorney representing the Secretary of State’s office, argued that adding yet another extension wouldn’t allow enough time for county elections supervisors to get the most recent new voters onto the rolls in time. That, in turn, would mean a high volume of provisional ballots being cast on election day, and would cause long waits at the polls.
“Given social distancing requirements,” Jazil pointed out, “the less time people spend in polling precincts, the better.”
That triggered one of several controversial retorts from Walker.
“If we open up every bar and restaurant in Florida, I’m not sure why we will have social distancing at polling places,” Walker snapped.
The comment showed contempt for the DeSantis Administration’s policies, and indicated ignorance of the fact that local governments have been allowed by the DeSantis administration to regulate health restrictions and social distancing requirements as each deems necessary. In fact, most polling places across the state have social distancing policies in place.
“When a judge conflates certain administration policies he finds disagreeable with a wholly different issue before the court, it smacks of bias,” said one Florida legal observer who declined to be identified.
But his open disagreements with the DeSantis Administration didn’t end there. Walker also took another veiled shot when he echoed a frequently used but unsubstantiated trope that Republicans are anti-science. After Jazil offered a document that compared the number of registered voters over the final week in 2020 versus the same time frame in 2018, Walker again couldn’t help himself.
“I know we have abandoned science, but have we abandoned math as well?” he said.
Walker, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court of Northern Florida by President Barack Obama in 2012, said he will issue his ruling on the case later Thursday.
UPDATE: Walker finally issued his ruling on Friday morning, ruling in favor of the state, essentially agreeing that any further extension of voter registration would cause more problems than it would solve. But in his ruling, he again blasted the state:
“Every man who has stepped foot on the Moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida,” Walker wrote. “Yet, Florida has failed to figure out how to run an election properly — a task simpler than rocket science.”
Walkers criticisms ignore the fact that the majority of the historical voting issues he referred to in his comment all stem from a handful of counties, particularly Broward and Palm Beach, and not necessarily incompetence at the state level. In fact, in 2018, then-Governor Rick Scott removed Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes for “malfeasance and incompetence” after a series of blunders that threw the 2018 election into chaos. Neighboring Palm Beach County was the site that triggered the infamous 2000 recount and Bush v. Gore case.
Monday’s incident appears to be an entirely different issue caused by an unusual spike in internet traffic overwhelming the state’s servers. According to several media outlets, more than a million people were attempting to use the system at the last minute. It’s not clear if the surge in traffic was comprised of all legitimate attempts to register, or a denial of service attack, but about 50,000 additional voter registrations were completed during the extension on Tuesday.