A federal courthouse is rarely a place for “Star Trek” references. But Chief US District Judge Mark Walker isn’t a normal jurist.
Walker, a colorful and relaxed judge who was nominated to his post by President Barack Obama in 2012, now finds himself at the center of Florida’s election recount, hearing at least eight cases on the matter.
In a quiet, monotone courthouse not known for abundant color, he stands out.
Sporting a bow tie over his black robes during marathon hearings on Wednesday and Thursday, Walker played devil’s advocate with both sides of the courtroom, probing each argument with a mix of legalese, current events and humor. He lamented the county’s current lack of faith in democracy, assured the courtroom that he was the most tired person there and compared lawyers representing Florida’s and Republican interests to the three bears from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
“They are kind of like the little bear,” he said of their arguments, with a smile, “They are looking for it to be just right.”
A sprinkling of humor
Walker’s humor belies his importance in Florida politics, but it has been well received even by the sometimes-humorless lawyers, who often crack smiles at Walker’s quips or even laugh.
And Walker is willing to keep a joke going. He referenced Tribbles – the rabbit-like creatures from “Star Trek” that were known to reproduce exponentially – when he looked out into his courtroom on Wednesday and saw nearly two dozen lawyers before him. But what some didn’t know was that reference was a call back to a joke he had made a day earlier.
“I feel a little bit like Captain Kirk in the episode when the Tribbles started to multiply,” he had said about the number of lawsuits on a conference call earlier in the week.
The jokes continued Thursday morning, when Walker, speaking to lawyers on yet another conference call, hypothetically said he would rule in favor of the attorneys for Democrats and watch Republican heads explode like he saw in a movie once.
“I’ll not make that movie reference,” he said quickly, moving along.
Minutes later, at the end of the call, he assured all those listening that he was referencing the “Kingsman” movie series. (He ended by saying he was hoping that didn’t actually happen to the lawyers.)
When he asked the supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County, Susan Bucher, for a guess as to when she would be able to finish the manual and hand recount in the Senate race, he did it with a imaginative caveat: “Godzilla could come out of the ocean at Palm Beach … barring that, when do you expect to finish?”
For some judges, references like this would be uncommon – even bizarre. But Walker has sprinkled his hearings with an array of colorful comments, much to the enjoyment of political aides who think the legal fight has become a slog.
When a lawyer on the Republican side made an argument about standing, Walker said it didn’t pass the smell test and that he felt like he was having his face pushed into a “cow patty.”
During a hearing about how a voter’s signature on a ballot may not match the signature they have on file, Walker suggested a hypothetical: What should my grandmother, who has Parkinson’s and couldn’t make the signature she once did, do if she wanted to vote by mail? After lawyers attempted to answer the question, Walker interjected to inform them that his grandmother was actually dead.
When he ruled on that case, Walker opened with a current events reference: the National Football League. “Consider the game of football,” he wrote. “Football fans may quibble about the substance of the rules, but no one quibbles that rules are necessary to play the game.”
Long days on the job
Walker, in between making jokes, has been working incredibly long hours. After two other federal judges recused themselves in election matters, nearly every legal question on the recount fell to Walker, forcing his staff and him to work until midnight for multiple days.
That has clearly put everyone – including Walker – on edge, and the judge has become testy with lawyers he thinks are wasting time.
When a lawyer began asking an obvious question, Walker jumped in: “Let’s ask something other than a common-sense question.” When the lawyer continued, asking Supervisor of Elections for Leon County Mark Earley a question that had already been asked, Walker hit back hard.
“I understand you are billing by the hour,” Walker said curtly. “I recall the question the first time it was asked.”
Walker’s ties to Florida run deep. Born in the city of Winter Garden, he is what’s known as a “double Gator,” someone who completed undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Florida. Walker received his BA at the university in 1989 and graduated from the law school in 1992.
Walker began his legal career by clerking with the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals and the Florida Supreme Court before briefly going into private practice. Before he was elevated by Obama in 2012, he served as a judge in the Circuit Court of Florida from 2009 to 2012.
He has a history with one of the central figures in the recount: Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s bid for re-election.
Walker took Scott to task earlier this year when the judge invalidated the state of Florida’s ban on allowing felons to vote.
“This Court finds Defendants’ reasoning to be nonsensical,” Walker wrote in his decision, which referenced something not aging like fine wine and the long lines for Space Mountain, a ride at Disney World. Walker also suggested that Scott’s plan was arbitrary.
Walker wrote: “A state cannot re-enfranchise only those felons who are more than six-feet tall, who are blue-eyed, who were born in August, who root for the Florida Gators or who call heads during a coin flip.”
During a hearing on Thursday, Walker said he not only held no ill will toward Scott, but he also didn’t know the governor.
“Gov. Scott and I don’t know each other,” Walker said during a hearing in a case over whether the governor should recuse himself from election matters. He then, however, pivoted to some media statements that have questioned the governor.
“And I won’t impugn his press secretary’s comments,” he paused, “about me.”
It’s become clear during the days of recount challenges that Walker enjoys the give and take of a courtroom, and the gentle ribbing that comes along with his position of power.
When a lawyer from the canvassing board in Palm Beach County said they had made a decision because they were worried about being sued, Walker jumped in with a joke about his caseload.
“I can’t imagine,” Walker said with a smile, “a lawyer is going to sue over an election.”