Current pool of applicants for Florida Supreme Court aren’t diverse enough, groups say

Florida Supreme Court
Florida Supreme Court

The current list of applicants to fill three upcoming vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court isn’t nearly diverse enough, a coalition of minority bar organizations say, and they have now filed an amicus brief to the court, arguing that the period for applicants to apply should be extended until the end of this month.

Although the Florida Supreme Court ruled last month that the next governor of Florida will have the power to appoint replacements for three members of the court who are retiring in January, the issue is far from being resolved.

That’s because the pool of candidates that are currently being considered are conservative-leaning, which won’t be a problem for Republican Ron DeSantis if he wins the governor’s race next week, but will be a major issue if Democrat Andrew Gillum is the winner.

The Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) is the appointed board that’s authorized to interview and select a final group of state Supreme Court justice applicants to present to the governor-elect. The current JNC is made up of Rick Scott appointees.

The JNC is slated to begin interviewing candidates for the court this weekend and present a final list of applicants to the governor-elect on Nov. 10. And there are more high-wire politics to come: by law, the new governor has to pick three new Florida Supreme Court justices the same day he’s inaugurated.

An attorney for Common Cause and the League of Women Voters argues that the JNC’s current conservative makeup influenced who even applied when Scott called for the JNC to begin the process of finding new justices back in September.

In an amicus brief filed Thursday night, the Florida Association of Women Lawyers and other minority volunteer bar organizations say the pool of 59 candidates solicited by Scott does not include enough females or people of color. They argue that the JNC should extend the process until at least the end of November to consider more applicants.

“Of the fifty-nine applicants, only eleven women even applied,” the brief says. “Furthermore, only six applicants identify as black and only six identify as Hispanic.”

The organizations add that while women account for almost 38 percent of the Florida Bar Association, only 25 percent of appellate judges and justices are women.

People of color are underrepresented in Florida’s judicial system; Only 6.4 percent are black, 10.6 percent are Hispanic and 0.4 percent are Asian, the court brief says.

And most startlingly , only three females have ever been on the Florida Supreme Court. Two of them – Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince – are retiring in January (Fred Lewis is the third justice who is retiring).

The state Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments Nov. 8 on whether the period for the JNC to interview candidates should be extended.

Attorneys for Gov. Scott filed a brief earlier this week contending that there is precedent for the outgoing governor and the new governor to work together on selecting the new justices, referring to how former governors Jeb Bush and Lawton Chiles did just that back in 1998.

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