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‘Jane Doe’ Divides Attorney General Candidates

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Andy Teo (Flickr)
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Republicans running to replace Attorney General Pam Bondi disagree with her legal stand against a 19-year-old Alachua County woman who wants to remain anonymous in a National Rifle Association challenge to a new state gun restriction.

And all five announced attorney general candidates, from both parties, object in some fashion to a wide-ranging law approved by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people.

The law, in part, raises the minimum age to 21 to purchase rifles and other long guns, imposes a three-day waiting period on the sale of long guns and allows specially trained teachers and other school personnel to bring guns to school.

The NRA, which is challenging the age restriction, is appealing a decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker that would prevent the Alachua County teen from being a plaintiff in the lawsuit under the pseudonym “Jane Doe.”

Bondi’s office argued that the request for anonymity “does not provide a sufficient basis for overcoming the strong presumption in favor of open judicial proceedings.”

Republican attorney-general candidates Jay Fant, Frank White and Ashley Moody sided with allowing the teen to remain anonymous, while Democratic candidates Sean Shaw and Ryan Torrens favor disclosure.

White, a state House member from Pensacola, pointed to the safety of the woman and said he wouldn’t have contested the addition of a “Jane Doe” to the case.

“The gun control crowd wants to bully and threaten her into not taking a stand for the Second Amendment,” White said. “I don’t think the identity of the individual impacts the substance of the case and as attorney general, I would not have pursued the unmasking of this young woman.”

Moody, a former Hillsborough County circuit judge, said she “generally” understands and supports the concept that anonymity shouldn’t be allowed in litigation.

“But the case law in this area does not deal with the unique factual circumstances presented by this case,” Moody said. “By and large, the prior case law addressed the fear of humiliation or some associational harm if a litigant’s identity is revealed. Here, the fear is greater. It is the fear of being harmed or living with the continuous threat of harm. The court system has always been and must continue to be a sanctuary of protection. I would never support a position that undermines that fundamental assurance to our citizens.”

Fant, a state House member from Jacksonville, said simply it’s his belief “that the safety of this young woman is protected and her rights are upheld.”

But Shaw and Torrens supported Bondi’s approach. The issue is pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

“Unless there is compelling evidence that this young woman's safety is being threatened, setting a precedent that essentially closes off our judicial process to the general public because someone does not want their identity known in a proceeding they have initiated is not warranted,” said Shaw, a House member from Tampa.

Torrens, a Hillsborough County attorney, called the NRA’s argument “unusual.” The NRA also requested the use of the pseudonym “John Doe” for another 19-year-old who is part of the case.

“The NRA has asked a U.S. district court to allow individuals to keep their identities secret as they contend their Second Amendment rights are being violated by Florida’s new law that raised to 21 the legal age for purchasing rifles and other long guns,” Torrens said. “But the NRA is asking that the identity of the individual complainant, a 19-year-old Alachua County woman be listed only as the pseudonym ‘Jane Doe’ --- thus making it impossible for defendants to verify the validity of her contentions, nor those of another party who has been identified only as ‘John Doe.’ ”

The Legislature and Scott quickly moved forward with the wide-ranging law after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Along with the gun-law changes, the measure includes numerous other provisions to try to improve school safety.

But the attorney-general candidates found fault with different parts of the law.

Torrens, for example, said the law doesn’t go far enough because it didn’t ban assault weapon purchases and goes too far in other areas. One of the most-controversial parts of the law would allow trained school employees to be armed.

“I stand with the Florida Education Association in opposing the provision of the bill that, in effect, makes it legal to bring guns into classrooms --- in the possession of those teachers that choose to become trained to use them against potential school shooters,” Torrens said. “The law’s goal here is noble. But we have yet to see a written plan for how and where the guns of those teachers will be stored and safeguarded in a way that assures the weapons will never fall into the hands of students or adults who might use them in anger.”

Fant, White and Shaw all voted against the bill on the House floor, although for different reasons.

Shaw said he supported most aspects of the bill, but “the idea of arming teachers is a step too far.”

“Putting more firearms into our classrooms is not going to solve this issue and could actually create an even greater threat to students and educators,” Shaw said. “We need to address the underlying issue of the epidemic of gun violence in this state, where a child is shot every 17 hours, through common-sense reforms, not by adding more firearms into the mix.

White and Fant supported the voluntary training of school staff to have firearms but questioned the gun-ownership restrictions.

“I firmly believe it went too far in infringing on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” White said.

Moody also said she wouldn’t have backed the measure due to the provisions related to the age of gun buyers.

“I did not support the measure as a whole because of provisions that took away the ability of law-abiding adults to purchase a firearm to protect themselves,” Moody said. “There are, however, parts of the act that I agree with. I support the hardening of our schools, expanding law enforcement's presence and role on campus, and providing more mental health screening and treatment to students. The heroism and bravery shown by teachers like Aaron Feis, Angela McQueen, Jason Seaman, and others, show the protective instincts of those closest to our children cannot be ignored. That is why allowing certain extensively trained school personnel to have access to a firearm to defend themselves and our students should be considered. The focus must remain on preventing another tragedy, not on political points.”

Feis was a football coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who died protecting students during the February shooting. McQueen and Seaman are teachers in Illinois and Indiana who intervened to stop school shootings.