“This is a huge victory for the Tea Party and our candidates,” said Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, which has its headquarters in Orlando and is officially registered with the state as a third party. It fielded 21 candidates in last year’s election cycle, including Dunmire herself.
“ ‘We are alive and well’ is the message that comes out of this,” she added. “And we see the slimy actions of the existing parties in this. If the public understood the two major parties, the Democrats and Repulblicans, are more vested in their own power than in being fair, I think the people would be outraged.”
The lawsuit, Don Henserling vs. Jon Foley, was filed last year. Dunmire said it was filed by attorneys for the Republican Party to seek a “pure bill of discovery” that would have allowed GOP attorneys’ to conduct what Dunmire said was nothing more than a fishing expedition into the financial background of her party’s numerous 2010 candidates.
Orlando-Osceola Circuit Judge Stan Strickland agreed and dismissed the lawsuit on Monday.
“I think the significance of this is it was the first of a series of similar lawsuits, where this Don Henserling — this unknown person, the only thing we know about him is he is a Republican – alleged that he didn’t think everything was on the up and up for our various candidates,” Dunmire said. “So he felt he had a right to be able to go and use the court system for a fishing expedition targeting our personal finances, dating back to 2008 — which was way before any of us had even thought about the Tea Party.”
Dunmire said she believes the lawsuits were filed to harass Tea Party candidates, lock them up in costly litigation, and make it harder for them to campaign or organize as a legitimate third party movement.
“It was a blatant affront to use the courts to try to intimidate us,” she said. “The significance of this victory is the judge was very clear that you do not have a right to do this just because you decide, ‘Gee, I just want to go into someone’s personal finances, then I’m going to file a lawsuit against them and make allegations against them.’ You don’t have the right to do this. This is an affront to our privacy, and they had no probable cause.”
The Republican Party of Florida participated in filing more than a dozen lawsuits last year challenging the ballot placement of Tea Party nominees, Dunmire said. Two of the cases had previously been dismissed by two Leon County Circuit Judges, and another one got bounced in federal court.
“We were very thankful that Judge Strickland saw this for what it was, just a real abuse of the court system and thus ruled to dismiss the case,” Dunmire said. “There is no basis for this.”
She noted that in 2010, 21 Tea Party nominees got more than 300,000 votes, a strong showing for a new state party. The Libertarian Party, which has been around for three decades, got 24,000 votes for its candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida, while the Tea Party’s nominee for Florida Agriculture Commissioner won more than 200,000 votes.
That kind of showing, she said, frightened the party in power.
“Now that I’m aware of how the game is played, it’s clear there are vehicles that can be used to challenge whether someone even has the right to run,” she said. “I think this is an outrage. This is America. We pride ourselves on being a country with citizen participation. Let’s step up to the plate and be a part of democracy. Here are people who just slam us for it because we didn’t kiss their ring.”
This isn’t the end of the legal battles for the Tea Party, though.
“We have seven more lawsuits to get through,” Dunmire said, although Strickland’s ruling allows the party to seek attorneys fees that could exceed $20,000.
The Tea Party was represented by its founder and former chairman, Orlando attorney Fred O’Neal. The Republican Party of Florida was represented by Tallahassee-based attorney Harry O. Thomas, senior partner in the law firm of Radey Thomas Yon & Clark, P.A.
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