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September 25, 2018

By Jim Saunders / News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Pointing to a “strong presumption in favor of open judicial proceedings,” Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office is asking a federal appeals court to reject arguments that two 19-year-olds should be able to remain anonymous in a challenge to a new state gun law.

Bondi’s office Friday filed a 54-page brief urging the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a district judge’s ruling that the teens — identified as Jane Doe and John Doe — should not be able to keep their identities secret if they take part in a lawsuit filed by the National Rifle Association against the state.

The lawsuit challenges a law passed in March that increases the minimum age from 18 to 21 to buy rifles and other long guns in Florida. The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott approved the change after the Feb. 14 mass shooting that killed 17 people at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In Friday’s brief, state Solicitor General Amit Agarwal and two of his deputies cited a federal court rule about requiring parties to be named in lawsuits. They also took issue with the NRA’s arguments that the teens should be able to remain anonymous because they could face threats and harassment for participating in the case.

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“Plaintiffs do not point to any specific facts that establish a ‘real danger of physical harm,’ ” the state’s attorneys wrote, partially quoting another case. “The more general risk that litigants who carry the torch for controversial causes will be illegally threatened or harassed by ideological antagonists should be taken seriously; but the proper solution to that problem is to vigorously enforce existing laws prohibiting such misconduct, not to ignore the ‘clear mandate’ of (the federal court rule) and thereby abridge the rights of the press, the public, and other parties to the litigation.”

But in a June brief, attorneys for the NRA, Jane Doe and John Doe pointed to concerns about the safety of the teens.

“Jane Doe and John Doe, two 19-year-old Florida citizens, seek to participate in this lawsuit challenging Florida’s age-based ban on the purchase of firearms anonymously, based on the reasonable, documented fear that they would suffer harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence if their true identities and participation in this controversial litigation were made public,” the June brief said. “Under the standard for pseudonymous pleading established by this court’s precedents, Jane and John Doe should clearly be allowed to remain anonymous.”

The NRA filed the underlying lawsuit March 9, shortly after Scott signed a wide-ranging piece of legislation that included raising the minimum age for gun purchases. The lawsuit does not challenge other parts of the legislation, which was designed to bolster school safety in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings.

The NRA later filed a motion to add Jane Doe, an Alachua County resident, as a plaintiff to the lawsuit. It also has sought to add to the case allegations related to John Doe.

As part of its case, the NRA has cited threatening and often-vile emails received by longtime NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. But U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in May rejected the request to allow anonymity for Jane Doe and John Doe, though he expressed sympathy for their concerns.

Based on precedent, “this court finds that mere evidence of threats and harassment made online is insufficient to outweigh the customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings,” Walker wrote. “This is especially true where the targets of such threats and harassment are not minors and where the subject at issue does not involve matters of utmost intimacy.”

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