By William Patrick / September 2014
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A group called Fund Education Now wants a state circuit court judge to recuse herself from an education dispute because she’s Catholic.
Citing her own independent research, Kathleen Oropeza, the group’s president, filed a motion in an ongoing lawsuit in which she explains that Judge Angela C. Dempsey is unable to be impartial because of her association with Catholic “interests” and “her relationship with Catholic doctrine.” The legal posture is the latest in a nearly five-year slog aimed at increasing public school spending.
The plaintiffs, an assembly of activist groups and private individuals, allege state government has failed in its constitutional duty to provide enough funding to establish a high-quality public education system. As a result, student performance has suffered, they say.
“This suit is to redress the deprivation of rights and privileges secured to plaintiffs by Article IX, Section 1 of Florida’s Constitution.”
Oropezo’s distrust of Dempsey stems from a categorical opposition to privately funded school choice scholarships, or vouchers, that afford economically disadvantaged children an opportunity to leave traditional public schools for private schools — many of which are Catholic.
“I do not believe Judge Dempsey can be impartial in determining whether Florida’s private voucher programs are unconstitutional, and I believe that she should no longer serve as the judge to decide the issues in this lawsuit,” Oropeza concludes.
As evidence, Oropeza points to Dempsey’s membership and board service with Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida, a socially active ministry, and a past speaking engagement at a Leon County private Catholic school that happens to accept tax credit scholarships for poor students.
Other alleged disqualifying factors outlined in the court document include an amicus brief filed by the Florida Catholic Conference — a group Dempsey has no direct affiliation with — relating to a previously failed attempt to establish a school voucher program.
Oropeza further says her “discover(y) of a Catholic strategy for saving Catholic education through Florida-style Opportunity Scholarships,” and a television news report indicating church cardinals and bishops were pushing vouchers led her to file the motion. “Had I been aware of this relationship, I would have moved to disqualify her before she ruled in my case,” Oropeza said.
Despite her rational, Oropeza closed with a disclaimer: ““I do not base this motion on Judge Dempsey’s religious beliefs, but rather on the positions of the organizations with which she is affiliated.”
In response, state lawyers rejected the motion and said it was not “objectively reasonable.”
“There’s nothing about these third party positions that could shed any light on Judge Dempsey’s own ability to fairly and impartially preside over the case,” the state responded.
The lawsuit is one of several ongoing legal challenges by various organizations, including the Florida teachers union and the state school boards association, to increase education spending and eliminate privately funded voucher programs.
William Patrick covers government waste, fraud and abuse for Watchdog.org’s Florida bureau. His work has appeared on numerous media websites, including Fox News and the Drudge Report.