TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist ran afoul of the state Constitution when he refused to fill an appeals court seat because all of the potential picks submitted to him were white, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday.
The high court ruled that Crist must make a judicial selection from the all-white list of six names for the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach that he was given by the judicial nominating commission.
Crist, complaining Dec. 1 that none of "three well-qualified African-Americans" in the original candidate pool were among the finalists, asked the nominating commission to send him more names. But the commission refused.
In a written statement Thursday, Crist said he was disappointed with the ruling but he will comply with it. "I remain committed to ensuring that the diversity of the people of Florida is represented in our judiciary," Crist said.
The court said the Constitution couldn't be ignored.
"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 to fill the vacancy on the Fifth District Court of Appeal," Justice Jorge Labarga, himself a Crist appointee to the high court, wrote in the decision.
Labarga, a Cuban-American, was a key player in Crist's controversial efforts to bring more diversity to the bench.
Late last year, after a Supreme Court nominating commission forwarded Labarga's name to Crist, the Republican selected him to sit on an appeals court instead. Crist then asked the commission to send him more diverse candidates for the Supreme Court seat. After a contentious late-night phone conference, the commission nominated Frank Jimenez, another Cuban-American and a Navy attorney who had worked for both Jeb and George Bush.
A group of high-powered lawyers protested the process. Some critics said it had become too political. Crist, now a Senate candidate for the 2010 election, denied the charge. He then elevated Labarga to the Supreme Court seat vacated by Raoul Cantero, the state's first Hispanic justice.
The lawsuit that the high court settled Thursday was brought by Robert J. Pleus, the 5th District Court of Appeal justice whose retirement sparked the nominating process.
Pleus was frustrated by Crist's intransigence and was concerned that the appeals court seat would remain empty indefinitely, said the judge's lawyer, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte. Pleus couldn't be reached.
A former Democratic legislator from Miami, D'Alemberte helped write the legislation and constitutional language in the early 1970s that created the judicial nominating commissions. The goal: make the courts more professional and less political.
"I've never seen a case like this where a governor refused to follow the recommendations of a judicial nominating commission after they've (sent him six names)," said D'Alemberte, a former president of Florida State University and the American Bar Association.
Thursday's opinion comes almost one year after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Crist acted unconstitutionally in reaching another case concerning a gambling agreement he struck with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Since then, Crist has appointed four of the court's seven justices.
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.