TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist made a Central Florida circuit judge the Florida Supreme Court's fourth black justice on Wednesday, disappointing conservatives seeking to tilt the court more to the right.
Judge James E.C. Perry, 65, of Sanford grew up in rural North Carolina, overcoming poverty and Jim Crow prejudice. A Democrat, he was appointed to the Circuit Court in 2000 by Gov. Jeb Bush and was chief judge for three years. He and Crist said that experience made Perry's case for the top bench in the state.
"We have a very diverse state, and I think it's important that our court understand all the different perspectives that make Florida a great place to live," Crist said.
Perry replaces Charles Wells, who retired this month because he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. That gave Crist the rare chance of appointing four people on the seven-member Supreme Court in his first term.
An array of conservative groups — notably the National Rifle Association and abortion opponent Florida Family Policy Council — and industry attorneys supported appeals Judge Alan Lawson of Orlando, who espoused a mantra of the right: the "proper, limited role of the judicial branch."
John Stemberger, leader of Florida Family Policy Council, called Crist's decision crucial because of the possible ideological shift on the court. In his first two picks, Crist favored the Republican Party base by picking Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, who are white men with conservative bona fides. His third pick, Jorge Labarga, the lone Hispanic member, has a reputation as a moderate.
"He missed a real opportunity not only to appoint the most qualified candidate, but also to bring the court back into ideological balance," Stemberger said. Crist "made an appointment rooted in politics and one which will entrench the Florida high court back into a 5-2, left-leaning majority for at least the next decade."
As conservative groups questioned Perry, liberal interests such as Planned Parenthood, which supports abortion rights, fought Lawson and another finalist, Dan Gerber of Winter Park, a lawyer whose clients have included chemical companies. The fourth potential choice was Judge Debra Nelson of Sanford. The position had to be filled from the state's 5th Appellate District, which includes Orlando, Daytona Beach and Melbourne.
Squeezed by those interest groups, Crist went with the choice of civil rights leaders: Perry.
"All I've known him to be is an upright person that has integrity, a person that works in the community, believes in giving back," said Sen. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat.
Bruce Rogow, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, cautioned against labeling Perry before he begins working on the Supreme Court. A trial court judge writes few notable opinions, Rogow said. And history is dotted with top judges who broke with expectations. The fact that the Supreme Court now has four relatively new members only makes the dynamics of the panel more uncertain, he said.
"I think it's so important for everybody to wait and see," said Rogow, noting he had not seen such dramatic change on the court in 45 years of legal work.
Perry brushed aside questions about his ideology Thursday, saying the choice was about his competency. He served mostly on civil cases as a circuit judge and did little criminal work, though he did oversee drug court cases. His record is mostly clean, though he was admonished by the Supreme Court after a client complained in 1994 about the handling of a case by a former law partner.
He said Wednesday that he worked as an attorney on criminal cases, including some involving the death penalty. Asked if he supported the death penalty, he answered: "I will follow the laws of the state of Florida.
"What does activist mean? That's another term they use to try to pigeonhole people. … In this sphere, somebody has to lose," Perry said.
However, race and politics punctuated Crist's process of picking Perry, a graduate of Columbia Law School. Crist demanded the Judicial Nominating Commission send him more diverse lists of finalists last year.
The underpinning of Perry's bid for the court was his experience growing up poor in the rural South. He unsuccessfully sued for discrimination after the Georgia Bar failed him in 1972. He passed the exam a year later. When Bush appointed him, he became the first black judge on the 18th circuit.
In his application, he cited his personal experience as "uniquely" qualifying him to be a Supreme Court justice. He also wrote that there are limits on courts to interpret law — and "not to legislate."
Neal Roth, a Coral Gables plaintiffs attorney, said Perry is fair and objective. "His life story shows he has tremendous character," said Roth, who worked with Perry on two Supreme Court commissions.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.