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Florida Court Rejects Pseudonymous Petition to Get Public Records

The case involved a public records request to identify the "six or seven pretty big legal conservative heavyweights" whom Gov. DeSantis labeled as "trusted advisors for his judicial appointments to the Florida Supreme Court."


From today's decision of the Florida Court of Appeal in Doe v. DeSantis, in an opinion by Judge Clayton Roberts, joined by Judges Stephanie Ray and Susan Kelsey:

In an August 2022 interview, Governor DeSantis referenced a group of "six or seven pretty big legal conservative heavyweights" who were trusted advisors for his judicial appointments to the Florida Supreme Court.

In October 2022, Appellant emailed an anonymous public records request to the Governor's Office. The request asked for:

Any and all materials, on official devices or personal devices used for official business, in whatever form, including but not limited to call logs, emails, or texts, between or among Governor Ron DeSantis, Casey DeSantis, the governor's chief of staff, his executive or personal assistants or aides, his general counsel or anyone within the general counsel's office, the director of appointments or anyone within the director of appointment's office, and the "six or seven pretty big legal conservative heavyweights" described by the governor in an interview with Hugh Hewitt on August 25, 2002 [sic].

The Governor's Office acknowledged that the request was in the queue along with a high volume of other requests. Over the next twenty days, Appellant attempted to have the Governor's Office expedite a response. On October 26, Appellant conveyed intent to file suit and suggested the Governor's Office just provide the names of the "heavyweights" to resolve the request.

The next day, Appellant, "J. Doe, anonymously and individually, a/k/a ''" filed a petition for writ of mandamus, a complaint to enforce the Public Records Act, and an ex parte motion for alternative writ of mandamus in the circuit court.

The court agreed with the trial court that plaintiff wasn't entitled to seek mandamus anonymously in this situation:

Appellant sought mandamus relief in the circuit court under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.630, which requires a petition to be filed in the name of the petitioner and not on the relation of the state. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.630(b)(3). Because the petition was filed anonymously, the circuit court concluded it failed to meet the rule requirements and denied mandamus.

Appellant argues the rule does not prohibit anonymous filings and should not be read to do so particularly in the public records context. We disagree that Appellant justified maintaining anonymity in the circuit court.

Along with rule 1.630, Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.100(c)(1) requires every pleading to have a caption containing the name of all the parties. The 2016 committee notes to rule 1.100(c) note its similarity to Federal Rule of Procedure 10(a), which requires the title of the complaint to name all parties. Federal case law is instructive here. Federal case law recognizes rule 10(a) is not just for administrative convenience, but also serves to protect "'the public's legitimate interest in knowing all of the facts involved, including the identities of the parties.'" There is a strong presumption in favor of parties proceeding under their own names….

While anonymous filings are not prohibited in Florida, they should be reserved for those exceptional circumstances that outweigh the public interest in open proceedings. Appellant did not seek leave to file anonymously by filing a motion in circuit court. Even after the court mentioned the issue at the hearing, Appellant did not pursue the issue. Appellant vaguely referenced a need to prevent a chilling effect on public records requests and a need to protect Appellant's livelihood, reasons that may or may not be found exceptional were they properly presented to the court. We agree that Appellant's petition failed to comply with rule 1.630 and affirm the denial of mandamus relief on this ground.

The court also rejected the petition on the merits:

To be entitled to a writ of mandamus, a petitioner must demonstrate a clear legal right to the performance of a clear legal duty by a public officer and have no other legal remedies available. Appellant failed to demonstrate a clear legal right to have the Governor's Office fulfill his request as submitted.

Appellant broadly requested records between many people during an unspecified period of time. While the records custodian could possibly intuit some contextual parameters, the core information Appellant sought was a list of names Governor DeSantis referenced in a particular interview. Fulfilling such a request would require the records custodian to consult with the Governor to determine exactly who he was referencing in this interview. This is akin to an interrogatory seeking information, not a request to produce public records…. "Nothing in the plain language of [section 119.01, Florida Statutes] or the Florida Constitution requires agencies to pore through their own records to answer specific questions." …

But the court added:

After denying the petition for procedural reasons, the [trial] court unnecessarily considered the merits of the petition and ruled the identities of the legal conservative heavyweights are protected by executive privilege. We expressly decline to rule on the propriety of this ruling as it was irrelevant and unnecessary.