Lawmaker aims to shake up how Florida judges are vetted and appointed

Fl Supreme Court
Florida Supreme Court

Florida Democrats can’t stop newly-elected governor Ron DeSantis from appointing three conservative justices to the Florida Supreme Court next month, but they’d like to revamp the selection process in the future.

South Florida Democratic state senator Perry Thurston unveiled a legislative proposal on Tuesday to take away some of the governor’s power to choose members of judicial nominating commissions that vet and recommend judges.

The aim would be to ensure the selection process is less partisan and the candidate pool more diverse.

There are 26 judicial nominating commissions in Florida. The best known is the nominating commission for the Florida Supreme Court, but there also are commissions for each of the five district courts of appeal and for each of the twenty circuit courts in the state.

Thurston’s bill comes just as DeSantis is contemplating the selection of three new justices to the Florida Supreme Court who were reviewed by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission – all of whom were hand-picked by outgoing Republican Governor Rick Scott.

Currently, the nine-member JNC is comprised of five appointees directly chosen by the governor, and four more picked by the governor from lists of nominees made by the Florida Bar.

It wasn’t always like that. Before 2001, the Florida Bar was allowed to directly appoint three members to every judicial nominating commission. And the governor appointed three members to those commissions.

The last three members of the group were chosen by a combination of governor picks and Florida Bar picks.

In 2001, then-Governor Jeb Bush signed into law changes that would ensure that the governor gets to select all nine members to each JNC. Four of those members would come from lists recommended by the Florida Bar.

Thurston’s bill would go back to allowing the Florida Bar to directly choose three candidates.

In addition, the bill says there could be no more than five members of one political party on a JNC.

There would be term limits of four years for anyone to serve on a JNC, and the terms would be staggered, meaning that there would be frequent changes to the commissions.

The judicial nominating commissions and the Florida Bar also would be required to ensure that members of commissions reflect the diversity of the population within the territorial jurisdiction of the court, taking into account race, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, sexual orientation, veteran status and the disabled.

The Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission sent a list of 11 nominees to DeSantis last month, none of whom were black, though there were six black applicants out of the original group of 59 who applied in September. The only African-American currently serving on the court, Justice Peggy Quince,   is retiring next month, meaning that the Florida Supreme Court will not have an African-American on the court for the first time in over three decades.

A coalition of minority bar organizations filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court last month arguing that the period for applicants to the high court should have been extended to allow for more women and people of color to apply.

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 brief said.

The odds are likely slim that the GOP-led Legislature will approve Thurston’s legislation. Orlando state Senate Democrat Randolph Bracy filed a similar bill in the 2018 session that never received a legislative hearing.

 

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

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