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Disqualified: Judge removes himself from Bill Nelson ballots case

The federal judge presiding over U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson‘s lawsuit to count provisional and mail ballots invalidated because of mismatched signatures has taken himself off the case.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, based in Tallahassee, entered an “order of disqualification” early Saturday.

And Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who has often taken the Rick Scott administration to task, took over the case.

It’s not clear from court dockets if the move affects an initial hearing in the case that Hinkle had set for Wednesday.

According to the Division of Elections, as of Saturday, outgoing GOP Gov. Scott leads Nelson, the incumbent Democrat, in the race for his seat by 14,848 votes. It wasn’t clear whether that included updated counts from Broward and Palm Beach counties, the subject of separate litigation.

“After conducting the scheduling conference and entering an order (Friday), I remembered that my brother is a party to a lawsuit involving (Gov. Scott),” he wrote. “This would not affect my handling of this case, but a reasonable person might think otherwise.

“Accordingly, I hereby disqualify myself from this case.”

Don Hinkle

Tallahassee attorney Don Hinkle has a case before a state appellate court over whether Scott is defying the state’s financial disclosure law by “underreporting his vast personal wealth,” according to the AP.

Scott’s attorney urged that court “to prohibit a lower court from even considering the lawsuit filed last year,” the AP reported. General Counsel Dan Nordby has “contended that any disputes over whether Scott is following the law must be considered by the state’s ethics commission and not the courts.”

Reached Saturday morning, Don Hinkle said of his brother’s decision: “As always, he has exercised good judgment.” He said it was the first he had heard of the decision, adding his brother had not discussed it with him.

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The case now is with Walker, an appointee of President Barack Obama, who also sits in Tallahassee. This year, he became chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, which includes the Panhandle and Big Bend.

Walker has a history of ruling against the state: He entered an injunction in 2016 telling officials they had to notify voters if signatures on a vote-by-mail ballot and voter registration forms did not match so they could fix those ballots by 5 p.m. the day before the election.

Earlier this year, he ordered state officials to overhaul Florida’s process of restoring felons’ voting rights, a move later reversed by a federal appeals court.

And he granted a preliminary injunction in a federal lawsuit over the state’s prohibition on early voting at college and university campuses.

(Previous coverage of the Nelson case is here.)

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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