Carl Hiaasen

DeSantis picked a judge who has never been a judge. But he thinks the ‘right’ way (wink, wink) | Opinion

Florida’s new chief judge of the Division of Administrative Hearings never has been a judge.
Florida’s new chief judge of the Division of Administrative Hearings never has been a judge. Getty

“Special Agent” John MacIver is the new chief judge of Florida’s Division of Administrative Hearings, one of the most boring yet important agencies in government.

Only eight years out of law school, MacIver has never been a real judge.

However, it says right there on his resume that he’s a “reserve” special agent for the Florida Department of Lottery — a “sworn law enforcement officer with statewide jurisdiction to investigate and make arrests.”

You probably weren’t aware that Florida has a squad of sleuths who specialize in exposing scratch-off scams or counterfeit Ping Pong balls or . . . whatever. There is no mention in MacIver’s resume of the tricky cases he’s cracked.

But his special-agent moves aren’t what got him the job as the state’s top administrative judge. MacIver was hand-picked by Gov. Ron DeSantis and approved Tuesday by the Cabinet for one reason: ideology.

He’s a conservative advocate for a meek and restricted judiciary. Actual experience in the judiciary can sometimes clutter such purist thinking, but MacIver assumes his powerful new post unburdened by real-life perspective.

There are 29 judges in the Division of Administrative Hearings, which handles a vast range of disputes involving government agencies, citizens, corporations and regulated industries — anything from a contested multimillion-dollar highway bid to a surgeon losing his license for amputating the wrong leg.

Your brain could go numb slogging through even 30 days of orders issued by the division, but the often-complex decisions impact public safety, healthcare, the environment and schools.

The judges who handle such cases are appointed by the governor. Michael Parrish, who had that job for 22 years, told the Tampa Bay Times that MacIver “does not appear to have anywhere near the qualifications to hold that position.”

MacIver has said he got booted from the Navy but turned his life around before entering law school at Northwestern University. After graduating in 2011, he worked for the National Rifle Association before becoming a government lawyer.

The political party in power usually tries to pack the courts, and MacIver soon became a political screener of potential judges for then-Gov. Rick Scott. When DeSantis took office, he kept MacIver on board while reshaping the state Supreme Court.

(MacIver was also one of the attorneys representing the governor in the controversial suspension of Broward Sheriff Scott Israel after the Parkland shooting.)

Although MacIver has spent little time in front of the bench, he can comfortably recite the preachings of the Federalist Society, an organization of judges and lawyers whose conservative legal views have become Republican gospel.

In his letter to the Cabinet asking to be named the chief administrative law judge, MacIver stated that over the last four years he has interviewed “hundreds of applicants vying for appointment to our state’s judiciary.”

Not all those applicants had experience as judges, but none of them could have had less than the guy who was interviewing them.

MacIver said his “singular goal” has been “to identify the applicant that best embodies the principle that judges must follow the law as written, interpreting the plain text by its commonly understood meaning.”

Here would be a good place to stop and try a little experiment. If you happen to have a copy of the Florida statute books handy, open a volume — any volume.

Within moments you’ll be mired in text that is the painful opposite of plain and commonly understood.

Northwestern doesn’t turn out many lawyers who are dummies, so MacIver is undoubtedly aware that his stated mission is a ruse. Our laws weren’t written by Dr. Seuss, and no amount of wishing will make them as easy to interpret as “The Cat in the Hat.”

MacIver’s true aim is to go after “activist” judges, which means judges who make decisions that conservative Republicans and their swampy corporate donors don’t like.

MacIver told Cabinet members he wants to improve “the culture of judicial philosophy” in his division. Again, that’s just code for imposing a political agenda.

He also seemed unhappy that administrative law judges are able to issue final orders, forcing state agencies to either obey them or appeal.

That’s how the Legislature purposely designed the process more than 40 years ago. A judge without the power to make an enforceable ruling would be like a basketball referee who’s not allowed to call a foul. What exactly is the point of being there?

It’s hard to believe that MacIver, the judicial philosopher, sought his new high-ranking position with the intent of diminishing its significance. Remember, this is a man with excitement in his blood.

A special agent, locked and loaded.

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