The Florida Republican party has dominated state politics for more than two decades now, but GOP legislators have been frustrated over the years by a liberal-leaning state Supreme Court that has struck down some of their proposals, including on white-hot issues like political districts, guns and abortion.
With three liberal leaning justices retiring on Tuesday, Florida’s Supreme Court now heads to a more conservative era, and Governor-elect Ron DeSantis says he can’t wait to make that happen.
“I think that both the executive and the legislative branches in Florida have had a lot of frustration with that third branch of government, with the judiciary constantly usurping more and more legislative power over the years,” DeSantis told an invited crowd of mostly Republicans at a luncheon at the University Center Club in Tallahassee on Monday afternoon. “Well, that ends tomorrow.”
The comment elicited an enthusiastic cheer from the crowd. DeSantis will be inaugurated as Florida’s next governor at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, and he says he will name his first new justice pick on Wednesday, with two others to follow in the coming weeks.
Long-serving Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince are all stepping down this week.
DeSantis said the current justices have been going “beyond their authority, and they’re taking legislative power.”
“It’s important for the constitutional system, and I think for accountability in government and our individual liberty, that we get that right,” DeSantis said. “I think as we get that right, there will be new horizons available to be able to plow new ground, new reforms, better reforms that are going to make Florida even stronger.”
DeSantis said that while Supreme Court justices are subject to approval by voters every six years, judges usually aren’t held accountable by the voters the way legislators and other state officeholders are. Florida law gives voters a chance to choose whether jurists should stay on the bench or not. However, no Florida Supreme Court justice has ever lost an election.
None of the three new justices that DeSantis will appoint in the coming weeks are African-American. That’s because the panel which was appointed to review and recommend justices – the Judicial Nominating Commission – failed to include any African-Americans on the final list of 11 candidates that it presented to the DeSantis in November. It will be the first time in more than three decades that an African-American won’t be serving on the state’s high court.
There were six black applicants out of the original 59 who applied for to the JNC back in September. A coalition of minority bar organizations filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court in November, asking that the state extend the deadline for applicants to the high court to allow for more women and people of color to apply. The court rejected that attempt.
When asked after his speech about the lack of African-Americans on the Florida Supreme Court, DeSantis said he’d welcome the opportunity to appoint future black judges, if they were conservative.
“My favorite (Supreme Court) Justice of all time is Clarence Thomas, so I would be delighted to appoint African-Americans who understand the law in that respect like Justice Thomas does,” he said.
DeSantis said he did not know what went into the calculations of the JNC when it made its recommendations, but said he was not aware of anyone’s race before he met with the 11 candidates individually.
“They were all a pretty impressive bunch of folks, but look, I always want to promote people from a wide variety of walks of life,” he said.
Democrats fear what lies ahead.
“We need a check and we need other branches of government to keep other branches in line,” Central Florida Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith told the Orlando Sentinel. “If we have a bunch of other people who look the same and believe in the same thing in the Florida Supreme Court then it’s just going to be right-wing government gone wild.”
South Florida Democratic state Senator Perry Thurston unveiled a legislative proposal last month that would take away some of the governor’s power to choose members of Judicial Nominating Commissions that vet and recommend judges. The goal would be to ensure that the selection process is less partisan and the pool of candidates is more diverse.