Last Updated: 1:25 p.m.
Nancy Prizer did not like Debbie Laury. Nor did she like many members of the Flagler County Tea Party Group. She wanted to keep them out of the Flagler County Republican Executive Committee, which she headed. She’d made that clear to Deborah Baril, the committee secretary, who testified in court this morning of the REC’s “deep-felt hatred of Debbie Laury” and her husband Glenn. “I was never to discuss the Laurys again,” Baril said, recalling a conversation with Prizer.
The Laurys sat in court this morning, as did several dozen Republicans, old and new guard, each on one side of the courtroom (the new guard outnumbered the old), in their first direct encounter before a judge since the new guard filed suit against the REC in February. Prizer was not there: she resigned as head of the local REC last month.
It’s an unusual case, revealing of internal matters and disputes usually kept secret from the general public–and especially revealing of a deep strain coursing through Republican organizations across the country, not just in Flagler: tea party insurgents and other similar offshoots, who are overwhelmingly Republican, are upending the way traditional Republican organizations define themselves. Some members of the Flagler executive committee tried to resist the change. Several members of the new guard had applied for membership in the REC. They’d been denied entry, according to court papers, ostensibly because Prizer did not want them there. (See background on the case here.)
The insurgents recoiled, pressed their case through various means, and failing official induction, opted to sue, hiring Palm Coast attorney William Bosch to make their case. Today they were seeking an injunction from the court, essentially to formalize the group’s entry in the Republican committee. In simpler terms: they were asking Craig, the judge to rule their membership official.
An attorney representing Prizer was in court, mainly to stress that because of Prizer’s resignation, her involvement in the suit is moot. Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell, the Republican Party of Florida attorney, took part on behalf of the state party by phone, from Tallahassee. Bosch was there in person.
And after almost three hours, Craig denied the insurgents’ request for an injunction.
“The realistic and ultimate result of that remedy would be effectively appointing 30 members to the Flagler County Republican Executive Committee,” Craig said, pausing a long time. “The court would note that this in and of itself may or may not be successful as part of the declaratory action in the case, but would be an extraordinary remedy within a motion for a temporary injunction, and having heard no legal authority from the plaintiff supporting this type of relief being requested in a temporary injunction, the court does not feel that this particular relief in this particular injunction would be appropriate.”
Much of the case so far this morning revolved around the particulars of REC meetings (and one meeting in particular, on Oct. 12, 2011), Prizer’s and other members’ conduct relating to rules of order, and whether or not those rules were followed–as when Baril described from the stand how an attempt to induct many members was derailed when Pat Sullivan, a Prizer supporter, walked out of the meeting she was chairing. Baril said she had not adjourned the meting.
“Yes she did,” several people in the audience said, out loud.
That drew an immediate rebuke from the bailiff and the judge. “Any talk from the audience, you’re going to have to remove yourself from the courtroom. I don’t want to hear that again,” Craig said.
Baril clarified that Sullivan had not gone through the steps required to officially adjourn the meeting. The detail is key to the insurgents’ case that what followed–a unanimous vote inducting many insurgents into the REC–was proper. But the state party has not recognized those motions. Laury said all that would be needed is for official ratification of an October meeting’s minutes for the new membership to be recognized.
Mitchell disputes the court’s role in this case. “The court really has no authority to regulate the internal affairs of a political party, in this case the Republican Party,” he told the court by phone. He said the local, potential members had not filed a grievance with the state Republican party to resolve the dispute, a claim the local insurgents contest. “We have no record of a grievance being filed with the state party that would have addressed this issue, so we feel court involvement at this point is premature, and unwarranted,” Mitchell said.
Whether a grievance was filed or not is itself in dispute. The state party says none was. Laury said local Republicans did file grievance papers. But, she added, she was also aware of a similar grievance case in Volusia County that took three years, and still hasn’t been entirely resolved. In the midst of an election year, she and the class members she represents have no such time. “What chance did we have of going the grievance route,” she said in court, “and therefore decided it would make sense to seek the advice and counsel of an attorney.”
To Mitchell, it was key that the grievance route had not been officially taken. But Craig let the case carry on, but he also focused his questions to Laury on the grievance process. He appeared, soon after noon, to be looking to give the court a way out of making a direct ruling on the membership of Laury’s class, at least for now.
Craig kept asking Laury if she was allowed to attend REC meetings. She is. He asked her if she had ever been excluded from a meeting. Absent from a meeting held at a gated community, she hadn’t. He asked if Pat Sullivan, the current chairman of the REC, had ever told her she could not participate. “Not in so many words,” Laury said, “but if looks could kill I’d be dead.”
That drew a gentle rebuke from the judge, who asked Laury to keep it factual. He was just about through with his questions to her, however.
In her testimony, Debbie Laury–an eloquently forceful advocate for the insurgents’ case–spoke of inexplicable and at times rude resistance from Prizer to the potential new members’ entry into the executive committee. Citing from a binder with about two inches’ worth of documents, she testified about local committee and party rules that, she said, supported her case for entry into the committee.
Rather than bring every one of the three dozen-odd member of the “class” of REC applicants Laury is representing, Bosch called Laury’s husband, Glenn, to the stand to speak for the class. When asked if he’d heard why he had been denied membership, he said no: he’d simply been denied. The only question Mitchell had for him was whether he’d filed a grievance, which prompted a sardonic reply from Laury, who described a letter sent Sen. John Thrasher emblazoned with the word “grievance” to catch his attention.
Robert Smith, a local activist with the REC and Bosch’s last witness, testified of speaking of that later with Thrasher, on numerous occasions. In a stunning redirect from Mitchell, the RPOF attorney asked Smith: “Are you aware that the Laurys’ attorney is not a registered Republican?” That drew groans of displeasure from people on the benches—and a request from Bosch to the court that Mitchell be admonished.
Craig then moved toward closing the hearing, just before granting the attorneys a chance to close, by suggesting that the REC should have an opportunity to be represented in the case. But it had to be represented by a lawyer. Craig went as far as asking if REC members had a lawyer among them. They didn’t. He then invited Bosch to make his closing argument, pressing him on the question again: “Why is the grievance procedure not an adequate remedy?” Clearly, the burden was on Bosch and his clients to show that they had exhausted all means of relif short of court action.
Bosch spoke of a “pattern of years of neglect” regarding such complaint. “We have demonstrated that there’s been a complete lack of absence and response to anything that we have requested in regard to correcting the situation,” he said. Therefore, he said, the grievance procedure is not a remedy. (One unspoken point: the grievance procedure itself is controlled by the state party–in other words, the umbrella organization over the local Republican Executive Committee, which may have an interest in delaying a quick resolution of the grievance, if it were formally filed.)
Craig, in a sustained questioning of Bosch, appeared unconvinced that the non-members were denied participation in the REC, short of voting on particular business, again revealing the judge’s discomfort with taking the unusual step of “appointing members to the executive committee,” as Craig put it. “You are asking the court to take an affirmative action,” Craig said. Ordinarily, he said, injunctions are requested “to keep the status quo in place.” That’s not the case here, Craig said. Naming people to the committee is not status quo. “Aren’t we putting the cart before the horse by asking for that specific relief at this stage of the proceedings?” he asked Bosch. He then cited law to illustrate the court’s limitations. “What authority does the court have to effectively name members to the executive committee?”
Bosch made a key distinction: the court would not be naming members to the committee, but it would be asserting that the committee had not followed rules set forth by its constitution and procedures. The court, the attorney said, is not defining those rules, let alone writing or prescribing them, but would merely acknowledge that the October meeting’s conduct was, in fact, valid, and the nominated members legitimate REC members. “I’m asking you to recognize a decision made by the REC on a temporary basis, until we can have a full hearing,” Bosch said.
“The party cannot ignore their own rules. Not that they can’t set their own rules. But once they set them, they must follow them,” Bosch continued, “and as a result of that, my clients have been disenfranchised, have been damaged.”
“This court has actually made a lot of my arguments for me,” Mitchell said in his closing arguments. He elicited laughter from the people in attendance when he said that the party “welcomes new members.” Mitchell repeated his original point: the court has no role at this point in the issue.
In his own closing, Craig agreed that “time is of the essence,” and so expedited the case, but noted that the REC was not heard from or afforded the opportunity to present evidence. But he left no doubt about his decision, confirming where he’d leaned throughout the hearing.