TALLAHASSEE — The Judicial Nominating Commission "ran afoul of Florida law" and appeared to bow to political pressure when it nominated Miami lawyer Frank Jimenez for the Florida Supreme Court, a group of high-powered lawyers complained in a strongly worded letter Monday.
Jimenez, a politically connected attorney who currently is the Navy's general counsel, was tapped for the seat Wednesday after a long and contentious commission meeting called in response to Gov. Charlie Crist's request for more diversity in the list of prospective justices.
Amid frequent 5-4 votes, the commission suspended its rules at times as some members questioned what they were doing, as well as Crist's motives.
"We are very concerned that the integrity of the process with respect to the nomination and selection of justices and judges may be tainted in the eyes of the public," said the letter to commission chairman Robert Hackleman.
It was signed by 17 lawyers, including former Florida Bar president Kelly Overstreet-Johnson, two former appellate judges and Miami Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos.
Jimenez's supporters said the questioning of the commission's motives was itself political. Jimenez ran afoul of some Florida Bar members when he worked as a legal counsel for Jeb Bush. Under Bush, the Republican-led Legislature gave the governor more power over the bar in selecting nominating committee members.
Incoming Cuban American Bar Association president Roland Sanchez-Medina Jr. said politics often plays a role in judicial picks.
"I don't think politics played a role in this any more than in any other nomination," he said, calling Jimenez "an excellent candidate and superbly qualified to fill the vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court."
During the Wednesday meeting, Commissioner Arturo Alvarez pointed out that they had sent Crist a list of five nominees that included a Hispanic, Jorge Labarga, whom Crist promptly tapped to fill a Fourth District Court of Appeal seat. Crist then asked for more names, touching off chatter in the legal community that the fix was in for the politically connected Jimenez.
"We should avoid the perception that our choices are influenced by the governor, regardless of his motivations," Alvarez said at one point. "Diversity doesn't mean: 'I want a specific person.' "
Hackleman and others argued that, since there was no Hispanic left to pick from, Crist's request should be respected. Crist said he wished the commission him more names than just Jimenez.