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Banned lawyer files lawsuit over Florida governor’s lockdown

May 27, 2020 GMT
In this May 23, 2020 photo provided by Fresh Take Florida, William Abramson sits outside the office of Auto Solutions of South Florida, LLC in West Palm Beach, Fla. Abramson filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis shutdown orders during the coronavirus pandemic. (Lauren Witte/Fresh Take Florida via AP)
In this May 23, 2020 photo provided by Fresh Take Florida, William Abramson sits outside the office of Auto Solutions of South Florida, LLC in West Palm Beach, Fla. Abramson filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis shutdown orders during the coronavirus pandemic. (Lauren Witte/Fresh Take Florida via AP)

The one-time busboy who is challenging the legal authority of Gov. Ron DeSantis to issue virus-related shutdown orders in Florida is a used-car salesman who worked for decades as a lawyer until he was banned from the courtroom last year in disputes over his behavior.

William Abramson of Lantana, just south of West Palm Beach, filed a longshot lawsuit over the governor’s authority to issue lockdown orders under Florida’s constitution and state laws. The Florida Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on the matter, has designated the lawsuit one of its high-profile cases.

Even Abramson acknowledged he was unlikely to win the case. He spoke to Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, in an interview last week. He called the governor “a good guy” but said he handled the virus emergency poorly.

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Abramson’s legal challenge tracks closely with critics across the U.S. who said shutdown orders by governors responding to the pandemic were excessive or legally questionable.

In Wisconsin, in a similar case earlier this month, that state’s supreme court rejected extending a top health official’s stay-at-home order in a ruling in which justices expressed unease over strict limits imposed on residents. Related legal challenges against governors in California, Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan have failed.

Abramson filed his lawsuit May 5, after DeSantis announced he was reopening Florida in phases, specifying which businesses would remain closed and which could operate under conditions. He called the governor’s decisions a “selfish and ridiculous” attack on liberty.

“You’re at the whim of a person, and we are a country of laws,” said Abramson, whose personal email address includes a reference to the American Revolution in 1776. “We are not a kingdom, we are not a dictatorship.”

The governor’s lawyers, in a 43-page response, urged the Supreme Court to dismiss the case or rule quickly for DeSantis, saying the state constitution and state law grants him broad authority to act for the benefit of Florida.

“This court should decline petitioner’s invitation to read such a restrictive view of the governor’s executive power and specifically his emergency management powers,” they wrote.

DeSantis has received generally high marks for his handling of the pandemic in Florida, where more than 2,250 people have died from the virus — though he faced national criticism for failing to close Florida’s beaches during its busy spring break. Abramson said DeSantis should have reopened the state with no limitations and relied on the public to educate itself on health guidelines to remain safe. “Education is what saves things,” he said.

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The lawsuit went straight to Florida’s conservative Supreme Court because it was filed as a writ of quo warranto, a direct challenge to the governor about whether he has acted outside the scope of his authority. Abramson, who last week asked to argue his case personally before the Supreme Court, noted that any citizen can file such a claim.

“It’s a great freaking country we live in,” he said.

Abramson identified himself in his lawsuit as a resident, citizen, registered voter, taxpayer and former restaurant worker. He said he worked for one month at Cucina Cabana of North Palm Beach, before it closed due to the pandemic. A restaurant manager confirmed Abramson’s employment but would not talk about him or his lawsuit further. Abramson now works selling cars at Auto Solutions of West Palm Beach.

The governor’s lawyers said Abramson lacked sufficient standing to pursue the case because he did not claim special injury resulting from DeSantis’ stay-at-home orders, even as thousands of restaurant workers were fired or furloughed after the governor limited then banned customers from eating in restaurants. The governor relaxed those restaurant restrictions in parts of Florida about five weeks later.

“The Supreme Court is going to do what they’re going to do,” Abramson said. “I’m just getting the wheels in motion and getting the idea in front of them that this could be wrong. They could either do something about it or not.”

Legal experts said it was unlikely Abramson would win. Daniel Woodring, a constitutional lawyer in Tallahassee, said the state laws giving the governor authority during a crisis are intentionally vague. “You always draw emergency operations statutes broad enough to cover unknowns,” Woodring said.

Abramson has a colorful past in Florida courtrooms. Last year, the Supreme Court agreed with a request by the Florida Bar to ban Abramson from practicing law for at least five years under a “disciplinary revocation,” which the court said was tantamount to disbarment.

The bar, which regulates attorney conduct, said over the years Abramson had neglected a client, disobeyed court orders, acted disrespectfully toward a judge and two magistrates, failed to reveal possible juror misconduct and commented recklessly about a judge’s integrity.

One of the bar’s complaints against Abramson was filed by a former circuit judge whom Abramson narrowly beat in a 2008 election. The Supreme Court stripped him of his judgeship two months after he was proclaimed the winner over the judge’s complaint.

Abramson said he has no interest in practicing law again.

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reached at swalker@freshtakeflorida.com and ljohnson@freshtakeflorida.com.

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