The changing judiciary: Gov. DeSantis appoints the people who’ll help him shape Florida’s courts

Florida Supreme Court
Florida Supreme Court

Gov. Ron DeSantis has named 66 people to sit on the panels that nominate candidates for judgeships at every level, continuing the process of remaking the state’s judiciary.

From civil litigation to criminal trials and lofty arguments about privacy rights and the death penalty, these panels will help select judges who will decide what the law says in ways that will reshape how Floridians live and work.

Already since taking office, DeSantis has moved the nine-member Florida Supreme Court court decisively to the right through appointment of three conservatives following the retirement of justices who helped comprise the court’s liberal wing.

The 66 people DeSantis appointed Monday evening will help fill any future vacancies on the high court, plus the five intermediate appellate courts that decide a large number of important cases each year, and every trial court in the state.

The new commissioners will nominate justices and judges who are more deferential to the Legislature, predicted William Large, president of the conservative Florida Justice Reform Institute, depending on the case at hand.

“The type of judges or justices who will come out of this process would understand that their role is not that of the policymaking branch of government. The policymaking branch of government is the legislative branch,” Large said.

In other words, the process will produce “texturalists” – “judges and justices who will say what the law is and not what it should be,” he said.

The appointees include Jeanne Tate and Daniel Nordby to seats on the Florida Supreme Court Nominating Commission. Tate is managing partner of Jeanne T. Tate P.A. in Tampa and specializes in adoption law. Nordby is a partner in the Tallahassee office of Schutts & Bowen LLP and specializes in constitutional, administrative, and elections litigation.

DeSantis’ new Supreme Court justices are Carlos Genaro Muñiz, a former aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush and state Attorney General Pam Bondi. He  more recently served as general counsel to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, both former federal prosecutors who served on the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

DeSantis, a Harvard-trained lawyer, has said that he looks for jurists who respect what he considers the proper role of judges – not liberal activists like the old Supreme Court majority, whose rulings occasionally frustrated the Republican legislative agenda by striking down state laws. Issues now pending before the Supreme Court include interpretation of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the death penalty, plus the access to abortion and other privacy rights.

“He understands the proper role of the court,” DeSantis said of Muniz, for example, when announcing his appointment. “I think that is a very useful perspective to be able to bring to the court, particularly because one of the criticisms I’ve had with the court is that they have not understood their proper jurisdiction and they have expanded beyond where they should.”

Each commission contains nine members, four of whom are nominated to the governor by the Florida Bar. The other five the governor directly appoints. The members must live within the jurisdiction they serve. Governors convene these panels when a vacancy occurs through resignation, retirement, death, or elevation of a sitting judge. They then screen applicants and by majority vote submit at least three or at most six nominees to the governor.

DeSantis’ office forced the resignation of the chairman of the JNC for the 18th Judicial Circuit, the trial court for Brevard and Seminole counties, after ordering that panel to recommend a specific candidate for a trial court vacancy, Politico Florida first reported on June 21. That chairman, Brevard attorney Alan Landman, said the governor’s aides ordered him to place Seminole County General Magistrate Tesha Ballou on the short list for the vacancy, the publication reported. DeSantis placed her on the Circuit Court in early June.

Jason Unger, who sits on the Supreme Court JNC, told the Florida Phoenix the governor’s office did nothing wrong.

“I’ve gotten those calls from governors’ staff before when there are specific names that a governor wanted. I don’t know if that’s what happened here, but certainly there’s nothing improper or unusual about that at all,” Unger said.

“Any governor, they travel the state, they have lawyers they know, lawyers they respect. Same with judges. If the governor has a name, or his staff knows of someone who’s applied that they think is a really talented lawyer who’d be an exceptional judge, they have every right to suggest. They don’t have the ability to require anything, but certainly they have the right and I’d say even the duty to let the JNC know there’s someone on the list that they think very highly of,” he said.

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