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Spanish-Language Ballot Case Put On Hold In Florida

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Amid settlement negotiations, a federal judge Wednesday put on hold a long-running legal dispute about Spanish-language ballots and voting assistance for Floridians who were educated in Puerto Rico.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker last year issued a preliminary injunction requiring 32 counties to take a series of steps, including providing Spanish-language ballots and materials, in time for the March 2020 presidential primary elections.

Walker last week refused Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton's request to dismiss the lawsuit, saying "there remains a live controversy between plaintiffs and defendant over the necessary scope of relief."

Attorneys for Barton, who has been a representative of the 32 elections supervisors in the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs on Tuesday asked Walker to put a short hold on the case because of settlement negotiations.

On Wednesday, Walker agreed to issue a stay, giving the parties until Jan. 27 to file a status report.

"At that point this court will lift the stay or take other appropriate action, depending on the status report," he wrote.

Barton on Sept. 29 asked Walker to dismiss the case, arguing that she is complying with the preliminary injunction in addition to following new rules.

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The original complaint, filed in 2018, included Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Barton as defendants. But following a federal appeals-court ruling in a separate elections case, Walker granted Lee's request to be dismissed from the lawsuit, deciding that plaintiffs lacked "standing" to pursue claims against her.

Amid the litigation, Lee established new rules affecting Spanish-speaking Floridians who were educated in Puerto Rico. But plaintiffs, including Marta Valentina Rivera Madera and a coalition of groups, argue that the rules don't go far enough to ensure such voters have access to Spanish-language ballots and voting assistance.

Denying Barton's request to dismiss the lawsuit, Walker wrote on Dec. 9 that her "promise to abide by the new rules and the terms of the injunction is insufficient to make the case moot."

After last week's order moving the case forward, Walker on Monday denied the plaintiffs' request to certify the 32 elections supervisors as a class of defendants.

The counties --- Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Hernando, Highlands, Indian River, Jackson, Lake, Leon, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Monroe, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Pasco, Putnam, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Sumter, Taylor, and Wakulla --- don't share enough in common to be grouped together, the chief judge wrote.

The lawsuit focuses on part of the federal Voting Rights Act aimed at people who were educated in schools where the predominant language was not English. It seeks to ensure they are not denied the right to vote in Florida.

(©2020 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's contributed to this report.)

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