Miami Gardens mayoral candidate awarded second chance at bid after bank error disqualified him

By Tara Mapes | Sep 23, 2016

MIAMI – The state's high court has ruled that the city of Miami Gardens needs to pay for another election after a mayoral candidate was disqualified because of a bank check.

James Wright, former Opa-locka police chief, filed as a mayoral candidate for the city of Miami Gardens and paid his registration fee by check from his new Wells Fargo starter campaign account.

However, the bank returned his check in error after the qualifying period expired. Consequently, Wright was disqualified from the Aug. 30 race and his name kept off the ballot pursuant to the state election law.

After receiving notice of the error, Wright presented a cashier’s check to the city, which the city clerk refused. Mayor Oliver Gilbert won the race with 69 percent of the votes.

Wright sued the city and lost in the Miami-Dade Circuit Court. In their ruling, the judges noted despite their tremendous distaste for the result, the plain language of the law was clear and allowed no exceptions.

The law states, “If a candidate’s check is returned by the bank for any reason, the filing officer shall immediately notify the candidate and the candidate shall have until the end of qualifying to pay the fee with a cashier’s check purchased from funds of the campaign account.”

In Wright’s case, the return of the check didn’t happen until after the qualifying period had already expired. Thus, his opportunity to cure the error caused by the bank was precluded.

"It’s extraordinarily rare for a court to basically throw out an election, but I think they did that in the Wright case, because he was taken off the ballot for events that were totally out of his control,” Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, professor at Stetson University College of Law and author of Corporate Citizen, told the Florida Record.

The three-judge panel concluded the decision with their certification of a question to the Florida Supreme Court it deemed as “one of great public importance.” They wrote, “Does (the state election law) require a candidate’s disqualification when the candidate’s qualifying fee check is returned by the bank after the expiration of the qualifying period due to a banking error over which the candidate has no control?”

Perhaps this question influenced the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Wright’s appeal. In a 6-to-1 ruling in Wright’s favor, Florida’s Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis wrote, “In this case, an irrational, as well as unreasonable and unnecessary restriction on the elective process has tainted the entire Miami Gardens election for the office of mayor by keeping the name of a candidate off the ballot, and therefore, beyond the reach of all the voters.”

The ruling means the city of Miami Gardens will have to pay up for yet another election.

Torres-Spelliscy said she doesn’t know if this case will have an “earth shattering” effect on the Florida election law.

“One possibility is the Florida Legislature takes the opportunity that’s afforded by the Wright case and they rewrite the law so that a blameless error does not cost a candidate their ability to run for office,” she said.

She said the Florida Supreme Court found Wright’s constitutional right to run for office was violated and maybe that will prompt others to review the language of the law and when exceptions arise, they will consider the facts.

“I think this should encourage the supervisors of elections and clerks who deal with candidate filings to double-check to make sure when a check seems to be bouncing it really is a bounced check because the consequences are so dire. The candidate doesn’t have the opportunity because of the timing to send in a new check. Especially in this case the check he used was a good check, it was merely an error on the fault of Wells Fargo,” she said.

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