Judge asks top court to force Crist to pick replacement
Aaron Deslatte | Tallahassee Bureau
March 31, 2009
TALLAHASSEE – A retired Central Florida judge wants the state’s highest court to order Gov. Charlie Crist to name his replacement in a legal standoff over minorities on the bench that has dragged on for three months.
"I deeply regret that the governor has made it necessary to institute an action over the appointment of my replacement," retired Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Robert J. Pleus of Windermere said Monday. "I feel that there is no alternative."
The petition filed Monday asks the Florida Supreme Court to order Crist to fill the seat from a list of six nominees sent him last year by the Judicial Nominating Commission for the appellate district.
Pleus’ seat has been vacant since early January; the governor has twice rejected the list, saying the panel screened several black applicants it could have nominated.
The panel of lawyers from Central Florida has said it is constitutionally limited to submitting a maximum of six nominees and barred from resubmitting new names.
Crist has directed several JNCs to send him more minority candidates in the past year to boost the numbers of minority judges statewide. That has rankled many lawyers, who argue the judicial nominating process was designed to limit the governor’s ability to hand-pick judges.
Although the governor appoints all members of the commissions, he must select judges from the lists of nominees the JNCs send him.
In December, Crist rejected the nominees — all white, but two women — proposed to fill Pleus’ seat. He said several of the 28 candidates interviewed were black and asked the panel to submit new names. Instead, the panel sent the same list.
Crist then waited 60 days until the nominations expired in January and has suggested he would wait on filling the appeal-court seat until he can appoint new members to the nominating panel.
No black judges sit on the Daytona Beach-based Fifth District Court of Appeal, which hears appeals from 13 counties, including Volusia, Seminole, Orange, Osceola and Brevard.
A spokeswoman for Crist said Monday, "The governor believes the courts should reflect the diversity of Florida’s people."
Since he started rejecting nominations, several black lawyers and the Legislature’s Black Caucus have thanked Crist for his stance.
"Diversity doesn’t just happen," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D- Tampa, a former circuit-court judicial nominating panel chairwoman. "The governor should hold fast, because I can assure you there are enough diverse, qualified candidates in the legal community."
Pleus is represented by former Florida State University President Sandy D’Alemberte, who said Monday that both he and Pleus had reached out to Crist’s office several times to avoid filing a suit and received no reply.
"I simply don’t understand it," said D’Alemberte, a former American Bar Association president who still teaches law at FSU.
"I personally applaud the governor for trying to get diversity on the court, but it seems to me the JNC has done its constitutional duty," he added. "The one thing the governor can’t do is sit there and not do anything."
Last week, Pleus, who has been filling in as a part-time judge to help with the appeal court’s workload, wrote to Crist that the delay was "adversely impacting the court, affecting the assignment of cases, the scheduling of oral arguments, the timely disposition of cases, and the utilization of staff personnel."
Aaron Deslatte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-222-5564.