TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott, seeking to bring the court system more in line with his conservative outlook, has repeatedly rejected lists recommended to him by the Florida Bar of lawyers seeking to screen candidates for judgeships.
Scott has rejected dozens of attorneys the Bar has nominated to serve on judicial nominating commissions, created decades ago to professionalize the bench and make merit and qualifications at least as important as political connections.
"He wants people with humility," says Scott's chief counsel, Pete Antonacci, "and he wants judges who will follow the law and not make it up as they go along."
The Bar said Scott's two predecessors, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, never rejected any of its nominees.
All 26 nominating commissions for the trial and appellate courts and the Supreme Court are composed of nine members. Scott appoints five members of his choosing and must appoint four others from lists provided by the Bar's Board of Governors, some of whom are liberal Democrats who did not support Scott's election.
The governor has rejected the lists 16 times and has never publicly given a reason and is not required to do so.
Scott has sent back so many Bar-recommended names that the group keeps a five-page spreadsheet to track them.
Lawyers who are registered Democrats, are aligned with left-leaning groups or who promote themselves as trial lawyers appear to have little hope of gaining the governor's favor.
Scott's list of rejections includes:
• Benjamin Crump of Tallahassee, a criminal defense lawyer honored by the NAACP for his legal advocacy and who is best known for his firm's representation of the family of Trayvon Martin.
• Lynn Drysdale, a consumer protection lawyer with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid who has testified before Congress in opposition to state laws that allow payday lenders to target military personnel.
• W.C. Gentry, a high-profile trial lawyer in Jacksonville who was a member of the legal "dream team" that successfully sued the tobacco industry in the 1990s. A former county school board member, he has generously contributed to Democratic candidates and has given money to Republicans, too.
• Tiffany Faddis, a trial lawyer, board member of the trial bar's statewide lobbying arm, the Florida Justice Association, incoming president of the Hispanic Bar Association of Central Florida and a registered Republican.
Antonacci said lawyers with such backgrounds are more likely to have a "living constitution" view of the law as evolving and ever-changing, which he said is at odds with Scott's views.
He said he did not know what the Florida Bar's agenda was in choosing which lawyers to send to Scott, and defended the practice of rejecting Bar names.
"The Florida Bar is not an accountable organization in any electoral way," Antonacci said. "The accountability in the process is with the governor."
A spokeswoman for the Bar, Francine Walker, said: "The Florida Bar respects that the governor can reject nominees it submits."
Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, criticized Scott's frequent pattern of rejecting Bar-supported lawyers.
"I believe it's unprecedented," Macnab said. "This is a pretty blatant example of politicizing the court, and citizens should be concerned. … It's disheartening."
Macnab serves on a statewide judicial nominating panel for federal judges and was appointed by U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican.
Former Republican state Sen. Alex Villalobos of Miami, president of Democracy at Stake, a bipartisan group that advocates an independent judiciary, said he regretted voting more than a decade ago to weaken the Bar's role in judicial selection. Prior to that, the Bar had three automatic slots on every JNC.
"That was a mistake," he said. "We're reaping what we sowed."
Antonacci said the pace of rejections is likely to quicken, because terms of 78 JNC members are scheduled to expire by June. All 78 were appointed by Scott's predecessor and likely 2014 opponent, Crist.
Since becoming governor in 2011, Scott has appointed more than 100 judges statewide.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.