A Leon County Circuit Court Judge ruled Friday that Rebekah Jones could not stand for election as a Democrat in the primary election Aug. 23.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper disqualified Jones as a candidate at the conclusion of a virtual hearing Friday in a lawsuit brought by her Democratic opponent for Florida's 1st Congressional District, Peggy Schiller.
"It's not a happy decision to make," Cooper said when explaining his ruling. "I think that anyone who puts themselves out for office should be commended."
Peggy Schiller lawsuit: Opponent files lawsuit against Rebekah Jones challenging eligibility
A Florida election law passed last year requires anyone running for a partisan office to be registered as a member of the party for a full year before qualifying begins in June.
Jones put out a statement on her campaign's Facebook page Friday saying she would appeal the ruling.
"We're appealing immediately, and voters can rest assured that we're not going to let Peggy Schiller, her GOP lawyer or anyone else steal this election from the voters," Jones wrote.
Schiller, a retired corporate attorney who lives in Walton County and has been active in the local Democratic Party there, also issued a statement on her campaign Facebook page saying she was pleased with the ruling.
"I believe justice has been served," Schiller said.
Schiller said Jones would have been disqualified under the same legal arguments by Republicans had Jones won the Aug. 23 primary.
"I have always wanted to make this campaign about defeating our poor excuse for a representative, Matt Gaetz," Schiller wrote. "This will now be our only focus, and we hope the constituents of the First Congressional District unite with me in achieving this goal."
Florida's 1st Congressional District covers Northwest Florida and is a Republican stronghold. Rep. Matt Gaetz currently holds the seat but is facing a well-financed primary challenge from former FedEx executive and Vietnam veteran Mark Lombardo, as well as former military pilot Greg Merk.
Gaetz reacted to the ruling on Twitter by saying he doesn't celebrate voters being denied a choice and it was "small" of Schiller to seek Jones' defeat in a courtroom rather than during the primary.
"That said, it seems obvious that the Judge followed the law and that Rebekah Jones is a fraud in virtually all she does," Gaetz said.
Jones became a national figure after she was fired from the Florida Department of Health in 2020.
She accused top state health officials of firing her for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data to support the push to reopen Florida after months of quarantine. She made several appearances in national media outlets to sound the alarm about manipulation of state data while administration officials raised doubts about her allegations from the start.
A state inspector general granted her whistleblower status, but a state investigation completed earlier this year determined there was no evidence to support her claims.
What the lawsuit against Rebekah Jones alleged
Schiller's lawsuit alleged that while living in Maryland in 2021, Jones registered to vote in the state in April 2021 as a Democrat. She then changed her party affiliation to "unaffiliated" on June 11, 2021.
The documents show Jones changed her affiliation back to Democratic on Aug. 11, which would mean Jones missed the registration requirement by about two months.
Jones testified that she only registered to vote in Maryland once as a Democrat and the two other changes filed with the state of Maryland were not done by her.
Rebekah Jones platform: Democrat Rebekah Jones says she can win in Northwest Florida
Ben Kuehne, Jones' attorney, pointed out during Jones' testimony that Jones gained wide publicity after her firing.
Jones said she moved to Maryland because she was getting death threats.
During an explanation of his ruling, Cooper said it's not impossible that someone hacked Jones or used her information to change her voter registration, but the weight of the other evidence made it unlikely.
Jones filed to run for Congress with the Federal Elections Commission on June 25, 2021, as an independent candidate. She changed her candidacy to the Democratic Party with the FEC on Aug. 12, 2021, a day after Jones' voter registration in Maryland was changed back to Democratic.
Kuehne also argued that Jones' decision to run as an independent in June 2021 before becoming a Democratic candidate in August 2021 had no bearing on her individual party affiliation remaining with Democratic Party.
Cooper said he did not buy that legal argument.
One crucial point of information Kuehne repeatedly highlighted was the fact that the two changes Jones said she did not make to her Maryland voter registration did not include her middle name.
J.C. Planas, Schiller's attorney and a former Republican state legislator who left the party after the election of Donald Trump, said Jones' argument did not stand up to scrutiny.
"Someone having all her information, trying to defame her (by) making her be a nonparty registered voter in Maryland at the same time that she's filing to run for Congress as an independent and is telling the press she's running as an independent, her argument doesn't hold water at all," Planas said.
Cooper said he was initially persuaded by the discrepancy in the names on the forms until he saw the FEC forms and Jones' own testimony that she did not prepare her campaign forms herself.
"At some point, you can prove a crime with circumstantial evidence," Cooper said. "...There's no credible evidence of any other person doing this or any other person having a motivation. There's a lot of evidence for Ms. Jones or someone assisting Ms. Jones in her campaign to do this."
Cooper said he did not enjoy having to rule the way he did but had no choice based on the evidence.
"I don't think I can come to any conclusion other than Ms. Jones was not a registered member of the Democratic Party for almost two months during this (crucial) period," Cooper said.
As Cooper was explaining his ruling, Jones interrupted him by saying she could provide documents proving she was hacked. The judge immediately kicked her out of the Zoom hearing, saying he didn't allow anyone to speak during a ruling, particularly a party in the case.
Cooper let Jones back into the hearing with the direction that she was not allowed to speak. When she was allowed back into the virtual hearing, Jones said she didn't realize that she was not on mute when she was speaking earlier.
Jones can appeal the ruling, and Cooper said he would enter the final order in the case by Monday to give Jones the maximum amount of time to appeal the case.
Ballots in the race between Schiller and Jones have already been mailed out to voters.
If the First District Court of Appeal upholds the ruling, Schiller will automatically win the Democratic Party nomination on Aug. 23, and any ballots cast for Jones will not be counted.
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Rebekah Jones disqualified from running as Democrat in Aug. 23 primary