Indeed, whenever there is a vacancy, dozens of state circuit judges, federal magistrate judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys apply to the Florida Federal Judicial Nominating Commission.
Miami attorney Kendall Coffey, who serves on the commission, said the turnover on South Florida’s federal bench has been significant, but there is always a steady supply of “the legal community’s best and brightest” eager to fill the prestigious positions.
The 60-plus member commission, appointed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, reviews applications, including educational background, general legal experience, trial activity, judicial roles, written work and recommendations, among many factors.
The rigorous process also involves interviews with commission members, who pick three finalists. They are further interviewed by Florida’s two U.S. senators. The president makes the final nomination, which requires Senate confirmation.
The nominating process is highly political for these lifetime judicial appointments, depending on whether a Democrat or a Republican is sitting in the White House. The confirmation process can also lead to rejection, or drag on seemingly forever.
Case in point: the confirmation of Williams, who was a former federal prosecutor in addition to serving as Miami’s longtime federal public defender. She was nominated by Obama in July 2010. But Williams’ confirmation was delayed for a year, partly because U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch in Fort Lauderdale privately expressed opposition to her nomination.
Chief U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno came to Williams’ rescue in July 2011, writing to Senate leaders: “Ms. Williams ... has been awaiting confirmation for the longest period of any present nominee to the district court in the entire country. ... The judgeship Ms. Williams has been nominated to fill has been vacant for two years!”
The following month, Williams was finally confirmed, along with Scola, whose confirmation was relatively quick.
As is customary, dozens of civil and criminal cases were dumped on the newcomers.
Williams has presided over a variety of cases, including a nasty dispute between auto insurance mogul Nicolas Estrella and the insurer of his yacht, which was scuttled over the Bahamas. She also oversaw the case of Ponzi schemer Gaston E. Cantens and the prosecution of Seminole Tribe leader David Cypress on income-tax violations.
Although Cypress only pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return in 2007, understating his income by $285,000, the new judge put his crime in a compelling context: “I find what Mr. Cypress pleaded to and agreed to in his proffer was uniquely and sadly American. He was cooking the books.”
Scola has presided over some long trials, including the criminal fraud case against four men accused of directing a bunch of “bar girls” to seduce and swindle male customers at Russian-style South Beach clubs. The bar operators racked up bogus bills for champagne, vodka and caviar on the patrons’ credit cards.
The trial lasted 11 weeks, ending with convictions Thursday of three of the four defendants, all of whom testified at trial.
A Miami attorney who represented one of the male victims in the so-called B-girls case said Scola balanced the interests of all parties during the trial — the hallmark of fairness.
“He carefully allowed the defense attorneys to have generous cross-examination of the witnesses, while protecting the victims who were testifying about personal and embarrassing facts,” said Joseph DeMaria, a former federal prosecutor.
“As difficult as it was to testify about these events, my client was very appreciative of the professional way that the case was handled.”