Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Stacking the courts


OUR OPINION: Governor injects too much politics into judicial nomination process

Trial lawyer? Registered Democrat? Leaning a tad to the left? If you fit this description, forget about serving on one of Florida’s 26 Judicial Nominating Commissions while Gov. Rick Scott’s remains in office.

In his quest for judges with “humility,” an attribute described by his chief counsel, Pete Antonacci, Mr. Scott has rejected all 16 lists of lawyers’ names submitted by the Florida Bar for membership on the JNCs. This unprecedented record of rejection cries out for a public explanation.

After all, Mr. Scott’s immediate Republican predecessors, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, never rejected any of the bar’s nominees. It’s pretty clear that Mr. Scott is aiming to stack state courts with like-minded conservative jurists — to the exclusion of everyone else, regardless of their qualifications.

The JNCs screen lawyers for candidates to judgeship openings on the state’s trial and appellate courts and the state Supreme Court. The commissions submit the names of potential jurists to the governor, who makes the appointments.

The commissions are composed of nine members, five of whom are chosen by the governor. The other four are also chosen by the governor, using a list of candidates submitted by the Florida Bar Board of Governors.

Once, the bar had three automatic positions on every JNC, but the Legislature weakened the bar’s role more than a decade ago by giving the governor the power to select all JNC appointments — a decision rued by more than a few legislators, in retrospect.

Only the Legislature can restore the bar’s stronger role in the judicial selection process, and it should, given Gov. Scott’s brazen efforts to paint the state courts redder and ignoring all qualified candidates who lack the politically conservative stamp of approval.

Among the Scott rejects: Benjamin Crump of Tallahassee, a criminal defense lawyer honored by the NAACP for his legal advocacy, and who is best known for his firm’s representation of Trayvon Martin’s family; Lynn Drysdale, a consumer-protection lawyer at Jacksonville Area Legal Aide who advocates on behalf of military personnel targeted by payday lenders; and Tiffany Faddis, a trial lawyer and board member of the state trial bar’s lobbying group, the Florida Justice Association, and the incoming president of the Hispanic Bar Association of Central Florida (and a registered Republican, to boot).

Apparently, according to the governor’s reasoning, these lawyers are “active” in their work on behalf of “liberal” causes such as civil rights for minorities and soldiers, among other things.

The dirty word here is “active.” Gov. Scott, says Mr. Antonacci, views the three lawyers mentioned above as likely to see the state Constitution as a “living” document, meaning it evolves over time to reflect changes in society and the law.

The problem is Mr. Scott’s ambitious reach. Governors are entitled to use their political clout to influence judicial selection, but they are not entitled to a monopoly over state courts. The blanket rejection of bar nominees for the JNCs elevates politics at the expense of judicial merit and the impartial administration of justice.

Florida is a large and politically diverse state. A sensible judicial selection system should reflect this diversity instead of becoming a way for one political faction to expand its power via the courts.

By spurning the bar’s nominees, the governor is thumbing his nose at Floridians who don’t share his political views — and at our impartial system of justice.

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