Crist lacked authority to send back judges list, SCOFLA rulesby Dara Kam | July 2nd, 2009
The Florida Constitution trumps Gov. Charlie Crist’s demand for racial diversity among judges, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
It was the second time in almost a year that the state’s high court rebuked an attempt by Crist to overstep his authority. In July 2008, the court rejected a gambling deal Crist had struck with the Seminole Indians, saying he couldn’t let the tribe offer card games that legislators had outlawed.
In Thursday’s unanimous ruling, the justices said Crist has no power to reject a list of nominees for a judgeship, then leave the post unfilled indefinitely, as he has done with a six-month vacancy on Central Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal.
The opinion was written by Justice Jorge Labarga, a former Palm Beach County circuit judge who was entangled in a similar nomination scrap before Crist named him to the Supreme Court in January.
In the Central Florida case, Crist spurned a state commission’s six nominees for the appellate post in December, saying the roster lacked diversity and asking the commission to reconsider three black judges. The NAACP backed Crist’s stance, saying Florida has a history of discriminatory judicial appointments.
But the Supreme Court said the constitution explicitly limits the governor’s power over judicial appointments, an attempt to keep judgeships from becoming “pork barrel” jobs for political cronies.
“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,” the court ruled.
In a statement, Crist said he was “disappointed” but would “look forward to interviewing and considering the nominees” for the appeals court. The justices did not set a new deadline.
“I remain committed to ensuring that the diversity of the people of Florida is represented in our judiciary,” Crist said.
NAACP lawyer Chuck Hobbs said his group will ask legislators to open the secret meetings of the state’s judicial nominating commissions.
“I have spoken to many minority lawyers and judges across the state who are convinced that the nominating process is flawed,” Hobbs said.
The jockeying over the appellate post began in September, when Judge Robert Pleus resigned because he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. The 5th District’s judicial nominating commission provided a list of six names to Crist on Nov. 6.
At that point, the constitution says, the governor must pick someone from the list within 60 days. But Crist rejected the list Dec. 1.
The commission then refused the governor’s request for more names and instead resubmitted its original list. The post remains vacant.
Pleus, whose retirement took effect Jan. 5, filed the lawsuit against Crist.
Thursday’s ruling makes no mention of a similar squabble that involved Labarga when he was a Supreme Court finalist last year.
Labarga appeared out of the running for the high court when Crist appointed him to the 4th District Court of Appeal in December. Within days, Crist asked the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission for a more diverse group of candidates.
After a contentious nominating commission meeting, the panel added a Cuban-American attorney from Miami, Frank Jimenez, to the list. That prompted suspicion that Labarga had been shoved aside for Jimenez, a former adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush.
But in the end, Crist named Labarga to the Supreme Court on Jan. 2.
Published in The Palm Beach Post on July 3 on page 1A.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.