Crist gets to reshape high court

In light of recent developments, Gov. Charlie Crist must be salivating at the prospect of appointing four justices to the Florida Supreme Court.

Rarely is a governor subjected to a judicial smack-down the likes of which occurred Thursday.

A unanimous court came down hard on Crist, ruling that the casino gambling deal he cut with the Seminole Tribe of Florida in November is illegal because it sanctions blackjack and baccarat games banned by state law.

Only the Legislature can change the law, the justices wrote, concluding that Crist overreached in striking a deal to steer billions of dollars in gambling revenue to the state.

"The Governor does not have authority to agree to legalize in some parts of the state, or for some persons, conduct that is otherwise illegal throughout the state," justices wrote in the case of Florida House of Representatives vs. The Honorable Charles J. Crist Jr.

The author of the opinion was Justice Raoul Cantero, who will resign from the court next month, opening a floodgate of four resignations on the seven-member court.

After Cantero leaves, Justice Kenneth Bell will soon follow. And Justices Charles Wells and Harry Lee Anstead will hang up their black robes in 2009 after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. The exodus will give Crist an unparalleled opportunity to "pack" the court with jurists who just might be inclined to see things his way.

And in the past, Crist has championed the very judicial independence that smacked him Thursday.

As attorney general three years ago, Crist praised two judges in the Terri Schiavo case, Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer and U.S. District Judge James Whittemore of Tampa. Both men played a role in rejecting the Legislature's and then-Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to intervene in the Schiavo matter.

Crist called them "heroes" for preserving judicial independence.

"Your defense of the judiciary and what is right is beyond admirable," Crist said in a speech to a lawyers' group in Miami, without mentioning the Schiavo case.

This week, asked to define the qualities he'll be seeking, Crist said: "No. 1, honest and ethical. Fair-minded, compassionate. People of great integrity, obviously, that are sharp and clearly care about people and are public service-oriented."

Like his predecessors, Crist conducts one-on-one interviews for all vacancies on the appellate and Supreme courts. The process suggests Crist is looking for people with whom he can strike a personal chemistry, if not philosophical agreement.

After all, a truly independent judiciary is one that is bound not to always see things Crist's way. That's the point.

In selecting justices, Crist is limited to the pool of nominees, usually three for each vacancy, given to him by a nine-member Judicial Nominating Commission. In 2001, at Bush's urging, the Legislature gave the governor more authority over who serves on the commission, at the expense of the Florida Bar.

Just last week, Crist appointed three people to the nominating panel: Coral Gables trial lawyer Kathy Ezell, Tampa lawyer Martin Garcia and Tampa business executive Kathleen Shanahan, a member of the Board of Education, transition-team adviser to Crist and former chief of staff to Bush. Crist lauded Shanahan as someone who "understands the value of separation of powers between the three branches of government."

Ironically, in its decision Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that Crist's deal with the Seminole Tribe violated the separation of powers.

"The Governor has no authority to change or amend state law," the justices wrote.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Crist gets to reshape high court 07/04/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 6, 2008 4:05pm]

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