News & Updates


Florida Supreme Court rules against Crist in judicial spat

Crist had held out for more diversity on the Central Florida appeals court

By Aaron Deslatte
Tallahassee Bureau

4:56 PM EDT, July 2, 2009

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Gov. Charlie Crist has to fill a Central Florida appeals court opening from the original list of six nominees, and can’t simply reject the names because he wanted a more diverse slate of candidates.

The governor had demanded more racially diverse candidates last December when he rejected a list of six white lawyers to fill a vacancy on the Fifth District Court of Appeal based in Daytona Beach, a vacancy created by the December retirement of Judge Robert Pleus of Windermere.

Crist’s move angered many in the legal community, who fear that allowing governors to reject names submitted by judicial nominating commissions would undermine checks and balances between the two branches of government.

In March, Pleus asked the Supreme Court to order Crist to name his replacement from the commission’s list.

But the high court said Thursday the governor veered out-of-bounds by rejecting the names he was sent and asking the panel to re-submit new ones.

Crist said he was "disappointed" by the ruling.

"I remain committed to ensuring that the diversity of the people of Florida is represented in our judiciary," he said in a statement. "In respect to the Court’s decision, I look forward to interviewing and considering the nominees for the Fifth District Court of Appeal."

Pleus’ lawyer, former Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D’Alemberte, said the governor’s goals would be better-served in the long run by appointing more diverse nominating panels and allowing the judical screening process to work.

"We never thought that the governor was acting through bad motives; we just didn’t think he had the power," D’Alemberte said. "It would undermine the whole system if he were allowed to substitute his judgment for that of the judicial nominating system."

The Florida Constitution says the governor "shall" fill court vacancies within 60 days of receiving up to six nominees from screening panels. This lessens the governor’s ability to appoint political allies or cronies.

The Judicial Nominating Commission — a group of lawyers, most appointed by Crist — reviewed 26 candidates, including at least three black lawyers, and recommended four men and two women. They were: James A. Edwards; Angela C. Flowers; John R. Hamilton; Bruce Waldron Jacobus; Brian D. Lambert; and Belle B. Schumann. The 10-member court is currently all white, with one woman member.

Crist asked the panel to reconsider and add minorities — specifically citing Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry of Orange County. The panel refused, saying it didn’t have the power to do that. Last month, Crist’s top lawyer, Jason Gonzalez, said that "questions had been raised" about racial bias in the selection, and the governor hoped to "clear the air" by getting a new slate of names.

But Crist’s office was never able to produce any proof of racial bias, a point several Supreme Court justices hammered on repeatedly in a May hearing.

"I’ve got some very strong feelings about this whole thing," Pleus said Thursday. "It needs to be looked at. (The governor’s) statement just makes it sound like it wasn’t a big deal, and it was a big deal. When you do what he did, it’s discouraging people from applying for the bench."

The court’s ruling concluded that Crist "is bound by the Florida Constitution to appoint a nominee from the (judicial nominating commission’s) certified list, within sixty days of that certification. There is no exception to that mandate. Therefore, we hold that under the undisputed facts and specific circumstances present in this case, the Governor lacks authority under the constitution to seek a new list of nominees from the JNC and has a mandatory duty to fill the vacancy created by Petitioner’s retirement with an appointment from the list certified to him on November 6, 2008."

However, the court stopped short of ordering him to fill the seat now, writing "because we believe the Governor will fully comply with the dictates of this opinion, we grant the petition but withhold issuance of the writ."

Aaron Deslatte can be reached at 850-222-5564, or at Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel