After constitutional struggle, Crist fills Central Florida appeals court post
By Aaron Deslatte
8:12 PM EDT, August 4, 2009
TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Charlie Crist bowed to the state’s high court and filled a judicial post Tuesday, nearly a year after the job opening set off a constitutional test over the governor’s power to put more diversity on the courts.
Crist appointed Circuit Judge Bruce Waldron Jacobus, 65, of Indialantic, to fill the opening on the 10-member Daytona Beach-based Fifth District Court of Appeal, saying his 22 years practicing law and time on the bench "have given him varied experience that will serve him well on the appellate court."
Crist last December had rejected an original list of nominees submitted to him by a judicial nominating commission because he claimed the panel had overlooked qualified black applicants.
The vacancy was created when Judge Robert Pleus of Windermere announced last September he was retiring. After the panel submitted the names of six white nominees, the governor sent the list back and asked the panel to add African-Americans — specifically citing Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry of Orange County. The panel refused, saying it didn’t have that power.
But 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.
The judicial nominating panel responded by submitting the same list of six applicants, claiming it didn’t have the power to pick new names simply because Crist didn’t like the original list. In March, Pleus asked the Supreme Court to order Crist to name his replacement from the commission’s list.
The high court ruled last month that Crist had to fill the appeals-court opening from the original list of six nominees and couldn’t reject the names because he wanted a more diverse slate of candidates.
The Judicial Nominating Commission — a group of lawyers, most appointed by Crist — had reviewed 26 candidates, including at least three black lawyers, and recommended four men and two women. The 10-member court is currently all white, with one woman member.
In May, Crist’s lawyer, Jason Gonzalez, said that "questions had been raised" about racial bias in the selection and that the governor hoped to "clear the air" by getting a new slate of names.
But Crist’s office never produced any proof of racial bias, a point several justices noted in a May hearing.
The court’s unanimous ruling, written by recent Crist appointee Jorge Labarga, concluded that "while we applaud the governor’s interest in achieving diversity in the judiciary — an interest we believe to be genuine and well-intentioned — the Constitution does not grant the governor the discretion to refuse or postpone making an appointment."
Jacobus has served on the Brevard Circuit Court since 1995, and previously worked in private practice for more than two decades. He received his law degree from the University of Florida.
Aaron Deslatte can be reached at 850-222-5564, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.